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Scientists have posited that SARS-CoV-2 may be a product of WIV’s experiments on an unpublished bat coronavirus that is more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13.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The statement about the WIV working on many unpublished bat viruses occurred in an email exchange on Feb 16, 2020 between Shan-Lu Liu and University of Pennsylvania coronavirologist Susan Weiss. Discussing SARS-CoV-2’s origin, Weiss asked: “Do you think it could come from a bat virus- which one or an unpublished one?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.

Wuhan lab director ordered staff not to discuss Covid-19, State Department cable says, citing blogger

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The director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) ordered staff in January 2020 to “not discuss COVID-19,” according to a Guangzhou-based blogger’s social media post that is cited in a February 2020 U.S. State Department cable obtained by U.S. Right to Know. The WIV is at the center of debate surrounding the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

The cable, which states that the blogger’s post “has since been blocked on social media,” adds to reports of Chinese government gag orders surrounding information about Covid-19, including revelations that  Chinese Centers for Disease Control staff have been instructed not to share any information related to the new coronavirus with outside institutions or individuals.

The cable was among State Department records released in response to a U.S. Right to Know Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Other items in the records include:

  • A February 2020 cable reported that the U.S. Consulate’s South China Public Affairs Section (PAS) “media contacts discussed the rumors circulating on social media that a graduate of the Wuhan Institute of Virology is patient zero of COVID-19, which has been denied by the Institute.” Media reports say the Wuhan Institute of Virology has denied links between WIV and patient zero, but the Biden administration has confirmed prior State Department’s claims that “several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019… with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
  • A March 2020 cable analyzed the Chinese government and affiliated media’s messaging on Covid-19.
  • Cables from August and October 2020 show the quasi-governmental role played by EcoHealth Alliance in Malaysia as an “implementing partner” of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s PREDICT program. EcoHealth Alliance is a New York-based nonprofit that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding for projects, which include genetically  manipulating coronaviruses with scientists at WIV.

For more information

U.S. State Department records, which U.S. Right to Know obtained through ongoing FOIA litigation, can be found here: State Department Batch #4 (129 pages)

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

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

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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).