Wuhan’s lower biosafety level labs posed greater risk for coronavirus lab leak, experts said

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Biosafety experts, including one with longstanding ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), privately harbored questions about risks taken with coronavirus research at biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) labs, including those in Wuhan, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know. The researchers felt that BSL-3 labs were more vulnerable to accidents, even more so than BSL-4 labs, a level used for the most potentially dangerous of pathogens.

While the WIV’s BSL-4 has been at the center of attention about biosafety practices related to the origin of Covid-19, the emails raise more questions about whether SARS-CoV-2 could have emerged from a lower biosafety level lab in Wuhan.

The emails cast doubt upon the biosafety protocols in place when the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded EcoHealth Alliance (EHA), a U.S-based nonprofit research organization, to carry out research with the WIV and the University of North Carolina (UNC) that infected mice expressing human receptors with engineered novel bat coronaviruses. Much of that work on bat coronaviruses appears to have taken place in BSL-3 labs in Wuhan, according to grant documents submitted to the NIH; and in some cases, even lower containment BSL-2 labs in Wuhan, according to a Journal of Virology article, and other sources.

James Le Duc, a leading biosafety expert, and former director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), and David Franz, a bioweapons expert and former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), exchanged concerns about U.S. and Chinese BSL-2 and BSL-3 labs.

Le Duc has had significant contact with scientists in Wuhan over the years. He trained WIV scientists at the Galveston National Laboratory, and records show he made multiple trips to Wuhan since 1986 to train virologists there.

On May 15, 2021, after Franz shared a letter in Science in support of investigating the origins of Covid-19, including a possible lab origin, Le Duc wrote: “I’m afraid that it may be way too late to find much out but it should be attempted, including the bsl2 and bsl3 labs where I suspect the risk for accidental release is greater.”

On Jun 2, 2021, Le Duc wrote to Franz: “The focus on BSL4 is justified but the bigger problem is likely at BSL3 where many more exist and standards are varied.”

Franz wrote back to Le Duc, “I also mentioned the issue you raise about a focus on 4s, both because they tend to be taken more seriously by governments (possibly making them safer and more secure) than 2s or 3s and also that the 2s and 3s are generally more vulnerable than 4s.”

Biosafety level (BSL) designations were established in the mid-1970s. Biosafety labs are designated BSL-1 to BSL-4, with 4 as the most stringent in practices and containment of potential pathogens. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the NIH establish BSL designations. Pathogen Level [P] lab 1 to 4 designations are used interchangeably with BSL.

BSL-2 labs include ‘biosafety cabinets’ with HEPA filtration, where experiments are performed, providing lab researchers protection from infectious agents, according to the biosafety manuals of the CDC and Boston University. Personal protective equipment (PPE), including lab coats, gloves, and eye protection as well as decontaminating procedures, are standard. BSL-3 labs have additional biosafety measures, particularly to protect against agents with respiratory transmission routes; these include full gowns or Tyvek suits, face shields, and additional “risk-based” protections such as ventilation devices, which may differ depending on the agent being used. BSL-3 labs require negative pressure and a specialized anteroom, so that agents will be contained within the lab even in the case of an accidental spill or contamination; and have more extensive HEPA filtration systems.

BSL-4 facilities have been a focus of biosafety discussions because the most deadly and dangerous pathogens, such as Ebola and Marburg viruses, are studied there. BSL-4s have more custom-designed containment and stricter requirements, including “mandatory use of positive-pressure (“space”) suits” and “dedicated nonrecirculating ventilation systems.

In EHA-led work conducted in Wuhan, scientists infected humanized mice with engineered novel bat coronaviruses in a BSL-3 facility, according to grant documents EHA submitted to the NIH.  Some collection and engineering of bat coronaviruses were done in a BSL-2, with less stringent protocols and containment, according to multiple sources including a paper in the Journal of Virology .

“I think we need to remember that a lot of the work, especially on coronaviruses, has been done (presumably) at BSL3…”, wrote Le Duc.

In the NIH-funded EHA grant proposal, there was ambiguity as to where the humanized mouse infections would be performed. While many biosafety details were specified in the proposal for Ralph Baric’s UNC BSL-3 animal facility – such as “rodent-sized Seal-Safe systems (~192 cages) for maintaining animals in a Hepa-filtered Air in/out environment, exhausted into the BSL3 Hepa-filtered exhaust system” – few details were provided about biosafety measures for the animal work in Wuhan. EHA President Peter Daszak wrote to NIH staff in the summer of 2017, that “UNC has no oversight of the chimeric work, all of which will be conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” according to emails obtained by the White Coat Waste Project, a nonprofit watchdog group.

Confusingly, the infections of humanized mice with chimeric coronaviruses were said to be performed not only in Ralph Baric’s UNC animal BSL-3 lab, but at two locations in Wuhan – Wuhan University and the WIV. The animal BSL-3 labs at Wuhan University, were more sparsely described than those at the WIV, with general statements such as, experimental work using humanized mice will be conducted at the Center for Animal Experiment Biosafety 3 lab of Wuhan University at the School of Medicine in Wuhan, China…Animals will be housed in a BSL-3 facility and will be under the care of a full-time veterinarian.” More detailed descriptions of the animal protocols, however, were said to be available through the WIV or Wuhan University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC) .

Franz wrote to Le Duc: “I haven’t worried about the BSL-4 lab, but certainly the one downtown [in Wuhan].”

Earlier this year, the Global Times reported that, “Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in April 2020 that China had two P4 labs in operation and 81 P3 labs in operation or approved for construction.”

Franz wrote, “There are also so many 2s and 3s that it is almost impossible to deal with them; it’s what happened with the legally binding protocol proposal to the BWC [Biological Weapons Convention] in the mid-90s.”

Le Duc wrote to Franz: “…the greatest risk is from the lower levels of biocontainment, but we don’t want to suggest that everything be moved to BSL4 either.”

U.S. Right to Know obtained the records reported on in this article through a Texas Public Information Act request to the University of Texas Medical Branch. We believe these records underscore the importance of transparency to minimize biosafety risks, prevent lab leaks and contain potential pandemic pathogens. They also highlight the need for scrutiny of current biosafety precautions.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

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

Chinese-linked journal editor sought help to rebut Covid-19 lab origin hypothesis

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The editor-in-chief of a scientific journal with ties to China commissioned a commentary to refute the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

The commentary reinforced a scientific narrative of certainty about natural origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, just a few weeks after the first reported outbreak in Wuhan, China.

The journal’s acceptance of the commentary for publication within 12 hours of its submission suggests a superficial peer-review process by a scientific publication to make a political point.

The commentary, written by U.S. virologists, was published around the same time as scientific reports and a statement from 27 scientists published in different journals that all asserted the new coronavirus had a natural origin.

The revelation that the editor-in-chief, Shan Lu of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, solicited the commentary for the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections (EMI) raises questions about whether there was coordination between political and scientific interests aligned with the Chinese government’s position on this highly controversial issue.

The journal’s editing is handled by Shanghai Shangyixun Cultural Communication Co. in China, in coordination with publisher Taylor & Francis, which is based in England. Several of the journal’s editors and board members are based in China, including some affiliated with the Chinese government.

EMI Board members Shibo Jiang at Fudan University School of Medicine and Yuelong Shu at Sun-Yat Sen University were among the group of Chinese scientists who sought to change the name of the new coronavirus to distance it from China; Dong Xiaoping is a governmental official at the Chinese Centers for Disease Control, who was the number two expert on the Chinese side of the February 2020 joint mission with the World Health Organization to elucidate the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

The February 2020 commentary is titled “No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2,” and was authored by virologists Shan-Lu Liu and Linda Saif of Ohio State University; Susan Weiss of the University of Pennsylvania; and Lishan Su, who at the time was affiliated with the University of North Carolina. The authors argued in their article against the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a lab leak of a bat coronavirus named RaTG13 that was housed within China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

The WIV is the world’s foremost coronavirus research facility and is located just a few miles from the site of the first reported outbreak in Wuhan, China. The authors also dismissed concerns that genetic alterations to SARS-related viruses created by WIV scientists in collaboration with a University of North Carolina laboratory could have been the source for SARS-CoV-2.

To date, WIV scientists and Chinese governmental authorities have not given independent scientists access to the WIV’s database of bat coronaviruses.

Speedy acceptance

In one February 11, 2020 email, Liu invited Saif to be co-author on an “almost complete” draft of “a commentary on the possible origin of the 2019-nCoV or SARSCoV-2 in order to dispute some rumors.” Liu said in the email that he had written the commentary with Su at the invitation of the editor-in-chief of Emerging Microbes & Infections.

Saif agreed to join, stating: “I edited this version and added my name as I too feel strongly about denouncing this.”

Saif separately was a signatory to the statement published in The Lancet that emails show was orchestrated by EcoHealth Alliance’s Peter Daszak.  EcoHealth Alliance is a non-profit group that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding to genetically manipulate viruses, including with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

On February 12, 2020, Liu also invited Professor Weiss to also be a co-author, and she immediately agreed.

Liu submitted the manuscript on the evening of February 12, and within 12 hours, the journal’s Shanghai-based editorial office accepted the paper, with one peer-reviewer noting: “This is a timely commentary. It is perfectly written… I suggest to publish it right away.”

In February 2020, EMI published two more commentaries, all of which were favorable to the Chinese government’s position on the origins of SARS-CoV-2:

  • a Feb 4 commentary titled “HIV-1 did not contribute to the 2019-nCoV genome” by U.S.-based Chinese scientists with affiliations to Chinese universities; and
  • a Feb 28 commentary titled “Is SARS-CoV-2 originated from laboratory? A rebuttal to the claim of formation via laboratory recombination,” by Shanghai-based scientists belonging to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Origins controversy continues 

The experts who authored the EMI commentary did not consider that WIV houses unpublished SARS-related bat coronaviruses, which could have served as a template for the lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, according to some scientists. To date, debate on the matter of the virus’s origins remains open, and there are growing calls to investigate natural as well as lab-origin scenarios.

Stanford Professor David Relman wrote in a PNAS article that arguments against deliberate engineering scenarios “fail to acknowledge the possibility that two or more as yet undisclosed ancestors (i.e., more proximal ancestors than RaTG13 and RmYN02) had already been discovered and were being studied in a laboratory—for example, one with the SARS-CoV-2 backbone and spike protein receptor-binding domain, and the other with the SARS-CoV-2 polybasic furin cleavage site. It would have been a logical next step to wonder about the properties of a recombinant virus and then create it in the laboratory.”

For more information

Ohio State University Professor Linda Saif’s emails, which U.S. Right to Know obtained through a public records request, can be found here: Saif emails batch #1: Ohio State University (303 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.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan