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.

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:

U.S. State Department records

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:

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)

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records

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

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.

EcoHealth Alliance orchestrated key scientists’ statement on “natural origin” of SARS-CoV-2

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Update 2.15.21 – Newly surfaced Daszak email: “No need for you to sign the ‘Statement’ Ralph!!” 

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that a statement in The Lancet authored by 27 prominent public health scientists condemning “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin” 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.

The emails obtained via public records requests show that EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak drafted the Lancet statement, and that he intended it to “not be identifiable as coming from any one organization or person” but rather to be seen as “simply a letter from leading scientists”. Daszak wrote that he wanted “to avoid the appearance of a political statement”.

The scientists’ letter appeared in The Lancet on February 18, just one week after the World Health Organization announced that the disease caused by the novel coronavirus would be named COVID-19.

The 27 authors “strongly condemn[ed] conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” and reported that scientists from multiple countries “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.” The letter included no scientific references to refute a lab-origin theory of the virus. One scientist, Linda Saif, asked via email whether it would be useful “to add just one or 2 statements in support of why nCOV is not a lab generated virus and is naturally occuring? Seems critical to scientifically refute such claims!” Daszak responded, “I think we should probably stick to a broad statement.”

Growing calls to investigate the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a potential source of SARS-CoV-2 have led to increased scrutiny of EcoHealth Alliance. The emails show how members of EcoHealth Alliance played an early role in framing questions about possible lab origin of SARS-CoV-2 as “crackpot theories that need to be addressed,” as Daszak told The Guardian.

Although the phrase “EcoHealth Alliance” appeared only once in The Lancet statement, in association with co-author Daszak, several other co-authors also have direct ties to the group that were not disclosed as conflicts of interest. Rita Colwell and James Hughes are members of the Board of Directors of EcoHealth Alliance, William Karesh is the group’s Executive Vice President for Health and Policy, and Hume Field is Science and Policy Advisor.

The statement’s authors also claimed that the “rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins.” Today, however, little is known about the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and investigations into its origins by the World Health Organization and The Lancet COVID-19 commission have been shrouded in secrecy and mired by conflicts of interests.

Peter Daszak, Rita Colwell, and The Lancet Editor Richard Horton did not provide comments in response to our requests for this story.

For more information

A link to the entire batch of EcoHealth Alliance emails can be found here: EcoHealth Alliance emails: University of Maryland (466 pages)

U.S. Right to Know is posting documents obtained through public freedom of information (FOI) requests for our Biohazards investigation in our post: FOI documents on origins of SARS-CoV-2, hazards of gain-of-function research and biosafety labs.

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