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.

Items from coronavirus expert Ralph Baric‘s emails 

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

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

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

Items from Baric emails

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

For more information

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

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

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

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Last week, U.S. Right to Know reported that an influential statement in The Lancet signed by 27 prominent public health scientists about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 was organized by employees of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit group that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding to genetically manipulate coronaviruses with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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