Scientists who authored article denying lab engineering of SARS-CoV-2 privately acknowledged possible lab origin, emails show

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Four prominent U.S. virologists who published a widely cited commentary strongly rebutting the theory that SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, might have been engineered in a lab privately acknowledged that they could not “rule out the possibility” of a lab leak, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

The emails discuss the need for careful wording of the commentary titled “No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2,” which was published in the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections (EMI) on February 26, 2020.

Published at a time when countries were grappling with the rapid spread of COVID-19, the commentary, which concluded that “SARS-CoV-2 shows no evidence of laboratory origin,” was shared widely in the scientific community. By the end of 2020, it had been downloaded 75,000 times and was the third most popular article in 2020 for academic publisher Taylor & Francis.

It and another influential statement denying a lab origin were published less than two months after the identification of SARS-CoV-2, when the importance of scientific studies to limit the spread and find treatments for COVID-19 were crucial. The communications within these emails, as well as others obtained and shared publicly by U.S. Right to Know, indicate involvement by individuals with undisclosed conflicts of interest; limited peer-review; and a lack of even-handedness and transparency regarding the consideration of lab-origin theories within the scientific community.

Lab leak possibility cited

The newly released emails contain discussions between scientists Shan-Lu Liu and Linda Saif, both with Ohio State University; Susan Weiss, of the University of Pennsylvania; and Lishan Su, who at the time was employed by the University of North Carolina. Some correspondence includes EMI editor Shan Lu, of the University of Massachusetts.

The published EMI commentary outlined multiple arguments as to why SARS-CoV-2 was not the result of laboratory engineering, arguing it was “more likely” the virus originated “in nature between a bat CoV and another coronavirus in an intermediate animal host.”

The authors stated in the article: “there is currently no credible evidence to support the claim that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a laboratory engineered CoV.” They wrote that despite “speculations, rumours and conspiracy theories that SARS-CoV-2 is of laboratory origin,” there was in fact “no evidence of laboratory origin.”

However, in a Feb. 16, 2020 email, Liu wrote to Weiss “we cannot rule out the possibility that it comes from a bat virus leaked out of a lab.”

Liu suggested changing the title of the commentary from “SARS-CoV-2: no evidence of laboratory origin” to downplay a focus on the origin issue.  The title Liu suggested, according to the email, should “emphasize that the new virus is not laboratory engineered.” That suggested title – “SARS-CoV-2: no evidence for laboratory engineering” – later was finalized to contain a subtle caveat: “No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2”.

The emails reveal other questionable details behind the commentary.  On Feb. 11, EMI’s Lu wrote to Su and Liu about suggested changes to the commentary, “…It is better not going to too much science/tech details as it can only confuse people and provide more room for people to raise more questions.”

Emails show EMI solicited and expedited publication of the commentary and waived fees normally associated with publication.  EMI’s Lu wrote to authors Liu and Su, “Yes, just a secret to you two and not share with others. When I put a super fast review and accept (basically no review), the JEO [Journal Editorial Office] of T&F, became very suspicious and wanted her boss to check and approve.”

Su replied: “Thanks for speeding it up, bro!”

“Frightening to think it may have been engineered“

An important part of the debate over the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is the existence of a furin cleavage site (FCS) at the junction between the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein domains, S1 and S2. SARS-CoV-2 belongs to a group of viruses known as betacoronaviruses lineage B. The FCS, however, does not appear in any of the other coronaviruses in this group. One argument in support of the lab origin hypothesis is that the FCS within the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein could be a result of laboratory manipulation.

The EMI commentary does not address the existence of the FCS, even though it is widely considered one of the strongest pieces of evidence of lab engineering. Evidence supports the importance of the FCS in the ability of SARS-CoV-2 to infect human cells and tissues. Engineering FCS within coronaviruses is a well-known practice in coronavirus research labs.

Email exchanges between the co-authors show that though their commentary did not address the issue, they discussed the troubling implications.

In one Feb 16 email Weiss wrote: “I don’t think it is likely that bat virus leaked into humans in the lab- is there any evidence that someone from the Wuhan lab is infected? …– lineage B Bat viruses generally do not have the furin site…I doubt very much it was engineered in[,] in the lab. Doesn’t make sense.”

Five days later, however, Weiss wrote to Liu: “I find it hard to imagine how that sequence got into the spike of a lineage b betacoronavirus- not seen in SARS or any of the bat viruses.”

Liu wrote back: “I completely agree with you, but rumor says that furin site may be engineered…”

Weiss replied: “I have been speculating- how can that site have appeared at S1/S2 border- I hate to think to was engineered- among the MHV [mouse hepatitis virus] strains, the cleavage site does not increaser [sic] pathogenicity while it does effect entry route (surface vs endosome). [S]o for me the only significance of this furin site is as a marker for where the virus came from- frightening to think it may have been engineered.”

Weiss wrote in another email: “I remain concerned about the insertion of the furin site.”

Other questionable revelations

The emails also show the commentary included the involvement of coronavirus expert Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli, of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

Baric and Shi have been central figures in ongoing inquiries regarding the potential origins of SARS-CoV-2 and whether or not there is a connection between the virus and gain-of-function research collaborations between UNC and WIV.  Such collaborations have been funded in part by the USAID-EPT-PREDICT program through an organization called EcoHealth Alliance. 

The emails show the authors of the EMI commentary asked Baric and Shi to review the EMI commentary before its publication, and included some of their comments in revisions. Neither Shi nor Baric were listed as co-authors or acknowledged as contributing.

EMI’s Lu wrote to the authors, “We don’t want to appear that we are defending Ralph even though he did nothing wrong.”

Over the last year and a half, a few scientists have privately expressed concerns about signatures of lab engineering seen in the SARS-CoV-2 genome but later authored commentaries arguing against a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2.

Documents show that Kristian Andersen, a virologist with the Scripps Research Institute, emailed Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, early in 2020 expressing concerns about possible genetic engineering of the virus.

Andersen had a conference call with Fauci and other scientists in February 2020, and shortly after led the authoring of a high profile article, published as a correspondence in the journal Nature Medicine, specifically arguing against any possible laboratory engineering of the virus.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the emails about the EMI commentary from an Ohio Public Records Act request to Ohio State University for emails of Professor Shan-Lu Liu.

U.S. Right to Know believes transparency in science is critical for understanding the origins of SARS-CoV-2, determining control and treatment of the virus, regulating research involving dangerous pathogens, and preventing future pandemics.

(Editing by Carey Gillam)

For more information

Ohio State University Professor Shan-Lu Liu’s emails, which U.S. Right to Know obtained through an Ohio Public Records Act request, can be found here: Shan-Lu Liu emails: Ohio State University (488 pages)

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

Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Wuhan Institute of Virology has many unreported bat virus samples, collaborating virologist says

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The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) “has many bat samples not yet worked out or results published,” according to emails of Ohio State University virologist Shan-Lu Liu, which were obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

Shan-Lu Liu has collaborated with WIV’s chief coronavirologist Zhengli Shi. For example, Liu consulted with Shi on a Feb 26, 2020 commentary in Emerging Microbes & Infections (EMI), which tried to rebut the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab.

The WIV, one of the world’s foremost coronavirus research institutes, is under investigation by U.S. governmental authorities, academic virologists and independent researchers and journalists as a potential source for SARS-CoV-2’s origin in Wuhan.

In February 2020, WIV scientists reported discovering the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2, a bat coronavirus called RaTG13. RaTG13 has become central to the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from wildlife. However, key questions persist about the provenance of RaTG13 and about the reliability of the WIV scientists’ claims about the closest known bat coronavirus relatives of SARS-CoV-2.

Scientists have posited that SARS-CoV-2 may be a product of WIV’s experiments on an unpublished bat coronavirus that is more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13. However, this cannot be verified because WIV’s authorities shut down outside access to its virus database in September 2019.

Zhengli Shi has denied speculations that her lab was working in secret on other bat viruses. In an interview with Science magazine in July 2020, Shi wrote: “We tested all bat samples that we collected, including bat anal swabs, oral swabs and fecal samples, and 2,007 samples were positive for coronavirus. We did not find any viruses whose gene sequence is more similar to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13.”

The statement about the WIV working on many unpublished bat viruses occurred in an email exchange on Feb 16, 2020 between Shan-Lu Liu and University of Pennsylvania coronavirologist Susan Weiss. Discussing SARS-CoV-2’s origin, Weiss asked: “Do you think it could come from a bat virus- which one or an unpublished one? RaTg13 is the closest? Is it close enough in sequence? Do you think it came through an intermediate host and sequence drifted? This is a very chilling idea”

Liu replied: “I have looked at carefully the RaTG13 sequence, and it is unlikely from it – also see attached file. But we cannot rule out the possibility of other bat viruses from the lab – The Wuhan lab has many bat samples not yet worked out or results published. There are some concerns that some of their samples may not have been handled properly and leaked out of the lab…But just a possibility.”

The Emerging Microbes and Infections commentary made no mention of the WIV’s work on unpublished bat coronaviruses.

For more information

Ohio State University Professor Shan-Lu Liu’s emails, which U.S. Right to Know obtained through an Ohio Public Records Act request, can be found here: Shan-Lu Liu emails: Ohio State University (488 pages)

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

Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Three State Department Cables

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On May 24, 2021, the U.S. State Department released more records in response to our FOIA lawsuit. These may be of interest:

  1. “PRC claims of COVID transmission via cold chain food imports growing”: A November 18, 2020 State Department cable expressed skepticism of Chinese state media claims that SARS-CoV-2 was transmitted via imported cold chain food. These claims were used to raise doubts on a Wuhan origin for the novel coronavirus.
  2. “China’s interest in the Global Virome Project presents an opportunity for global health cooperation”: A September 28, 2017 State Department cable conveyed the Chinese government’s interest in collaborating with the U.S. government on the Global Virome Project (GVP) — an ambitious effort to map the global diversity of potential pandemic pathogens. The GVP is a successor of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s PREDICT project. PREDICT supported scientists from WIV and the U.S. nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance to gather bat coronaviruses from a mineshaft in Yunnan, China, including RaTG13 — SARS-CoV-2’s closest-known relative to date. In 2012, six miners who entered this mineshaft fell sick with Covid-like pneumonia of unknown origin, with three eventually dying.
  3. “Wuhan Institute of Virology cancels meeting”: A December 2017 State Department cable, titled “A Most Inconvenient Year: Central China’s Interference in U.S. Activities in 2017,” reported that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) canceled a meeting with diplomats from the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan. The meeting was reportedly intended to set the stage for the U.S. Consul General’s official visit to WIV’s maximum-security BSL-4 laboratory. In 2018, the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan repeatedly warned of safety issues and risky bat coronavirus research at WIV.

For more information:

U.S. State Department records, which U.S. Right to Know obtained via FOIA litigation are here: State Department Batch #3 (114 pages)

Also see: State Department Batch #2 (37 pages) and State Department Batch #1 (92 pages)

Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

USRTK asks ODNI to declassify documents about accidents at labs that store dangerous pathogens

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U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) has asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to declassify three documents about biosafety lapses occurring in laboratories that store dangerous pathogens.

The mandatory declassification review (MDR) request responds to ODNI’s decision to withhold three classified documents responsive to a Freedom of Information Act request USRTK submitted in August 2020.

The FOIA request “sought finished intelligence produced since January 2015 about the accidental or deliberate release of biological agents, containment failures in biosafety-level (BSL)-2, BSL-3 or BSL-4 research facilities, and other incidents of concern related to dual-use biosafety research in BSL-2, BSL-3 or BSL-4 research facilities in Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, the Netherlands, Russia, former countries of the Soviet Union, South Africa, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and Thailand.”

ODNI said in its response that it had located three documents, and determined these “must be withheld in their entirety pursuant to FOIA exemptions” regarding the protection of classified materials concerning intelligence methods and sources of national security relevance. ODNI did not describe or characterize the nature of the three documents or their contents, other than that they were responsive to the FOIA request.

In its MDR request, USRTK requested that ODNI release all reasonably segregable nonexempt portions of the three documents.

USRTK believes the public has a right to know what data exists about accidents, leaks and other mishaps at laboratories where pathogens of pandemic potential are stored and modified, and whether any such leaks are implicated in the origins of COVID-19, which has caused the deaths of more than 360,000 Americans.

For more information

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

Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Altered datasets raise more questions about reliability of key studies on coronavirus origins

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Revisions to genomic datasets associated with four key studies on coronavirus origins add further questions about the reliability of these studies, which provide foundational support for the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 originated in wildlife. The studies, Peng Zhou et al., Hong Zhou et al., Lam et al., and Xiao et al., discovered SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses in horseshoe bats and Malayan pangolins.

The studies’ authors deposited DNA sequence data called sequence reads, which they used to assemble bat- and pangolin-coronavirus genomes, in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) sequence read archive (SRA). NCBI established the public database to assist independent verification of genomic analyses based on high-throughput sequencing technologies.

U.S. Right to Know obtained documents by a public records request that show revisions to these studies’ SRA data months after they were published. These revisions are odd because they occurred after publication, and without any rationale, explanation or validation.

For example, Peng Zhou et al. and Lam et al. updated their SRA data on the same two dates. The documents don’t explain why they altered their data, only that some changes were made. Xiao et al. made numerous changes to their SRA data, including the deletion of two datasets on March 10, the addition of a new dataset on June 19, a November 8 replacement of data first released on October 30, and a further data change on November 13 — two days after Nature added an Editor’s “note of concern” about the study. Hong Zhou et al. have yet to share the full SRA dataset that would enable independent verification. While journals like Nature require authors to make all data “promptly available” at the time of publication, SRA data can be released after publication; but it is unusual to make such changes months after publication.

These unusual alterations of SRA data do not automatically make the four studies and their associated datasets unreliable. However, the delays, gaps and changes in SRA data have hampered independent assembly and verification of the published genome sequences, and add to questions and concerns about the validity of the four studies, such as:

  1. What were the exact post-publication revisions to the SRA data? Why were they made? How did they affect the associated genomic analyses and results?
  2. Were these SRA revisions independently validated? If so, how? The NCBI’s only validation criterion for publishing an SRA BioProject– beyond basic information such as “organism name”– is that it cannot be a duplicate.

For more information

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) documents can be found here: NCBI emails (63 pages)

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

Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

No peer review for addendum to prominent coronavirus origins study?

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The journal Nature did not assess the reliability of important claims made in a November 17 addendum to a study on the bat-origins of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, correspondence with Nature staff suggests.

On February 3, 2020, Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists reported discovering the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2, a bat coronavirus called RaTG13. RaTG13 has become central to the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 originated in wildlife.

The addendum addresses unanswered questions about the provenance of RaTG13. The authors, Zhou et al., clarified they found RaTG13 in 2012-2013 “in an abandoned mineshaft in Mojiang County, Yunnan Province,” where six miners suffered acute respiratory distress syndrome after exposure to bat feces, and three died. Investigations of the symptoms of the sickened miners could provide important clues about the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Zhou et al. reported finding no SARS-related coronaviruses in stored serum samples of the sick miners, but they did not support their claims with data and methods about their assays and experimental controls.

The absence of key data in the addendum has raised further questions about the reliability of the Zhou et al. study. On November 27, U.S. Right to Know asked Nature questions about the addendum’s claims, and requested that Nature publish all supporting data that Zhou et al. may have provided.

On December 2, Nature Head of Communications Bex Walton replied that the original Zhou et al.  study was “accurate but unclear,” and that the addendum was an appropriate post-publication platform for clarification. She added: “With regards to your questions, we would direct you to approach the authors of the paper for answers, as these questions pertain not to the research that we have published but to other research undertaken by the authors, upon which we cannot comment” (emphasis ours). Since our questions related to research described in the addendum, the Nature representative’s statement suggests Zhou et al.’s addendum was not evaluated as research.

We asked a follow up question on December 2: “was this addendum subjected to any peer-review and/or editorial oversight by Nature?” Ms. Walton did not answer directly; she replied: “In general, our editors will assess comments or concerns that are raised with us in the first instance, consulting the authors, and seeking advice from peer reviewers and other external experts if we consider it necessary. Our confidentiality policy means we cannot comment on the specific handling of individual cases.”

Since Nature considers an addendum to be a post-publication update, and does not subject such post publication addenda to the same peer-review standards as original publications, it seems likely that the Zhou et al. addendum did not undergo peer-review.

Authors Zhengli Shi and Peng Zhou did not respond to our questions about their Nature addendum.

Items from coronavirus expert Ralph Baric‘s emails 

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

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

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

Items from Baric emails

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

For more information

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

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