U.S. virologist let Wuhan scientists revise his Congressional briefing

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James Le Duc (left) gives a tour of Galveston National Laboratory. (Credit: UTMB)

An American virologist asked Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists to edit a briefing he prepared for Congressional staff, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. 

“I certainly do not want to compromise you or your research activities,” wrote leading biosafety expert and virologist James Le Duc to Shi Zhengli, a top virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology nicknamed the “Bat Woman,” in April 2020.

“Make any changes that you would like,” he wrote, attaching a copy of his prepared comments.  

Le Duc also shared his informal testimony with Yuan Zhiming, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s highest security laboratory, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory. Le Duc was the longtime director of the Galveston National Laboratory, another high security or “BSL-4” lab studying coronaviruses. The Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory and the Galveston National Laboratory have a formal cooperative agreement. 

Scientists are continuing to investigate whether SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, may have emerged from a lab accident or spilled over naturally from an animal. 

The House Foreign Affairs Committee had asked Le Duc for his input in the pandemic’s early months – and for good reason. The University of Texas Medical Branch’s BSL-4 lab has worked closely with labs in Wuhan for decades, including on issues of laboratory safety.

“Given the long history of collaborations between the GNL and the WIV, I have been approached repeatedly for details on our work,” Le Duc said to his colleagues at the WIV. “Attached is a draft summary that I will be providing to leadership of our University of Texas system and likely to Congressional committees that are being formed now.”

The exchange raises questions about whether Le Duc allowed the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s leading scientists to influence Congress’ understanding of an intensifying pandemic, irrespective of whether they were free to tell the truth.

Days earlier, Le Duc had forwarded Shi information about an article describing calls from Senate Republicans for an investigation of her lab. He asked to speak with her about it, but Shi declined. 

But Shi did send back a reply to Le Duc with reference materials – including several articles she co-authored underscoring the possibility of a spillover of bat coronaviruses into humans, including articles describing the creation of engineered viruses with new spike proteins. 

“I’ve added some detailed information for your reference,” she wrote. 

She did not initially send back a copy of Le Duc’s briefing document.

“I did not receive the document I sent for your review so if you made comments on that, please send,” he responded.

“Sorry, I forgot the reviewed document,” Shi wrote back, suggesting that she did indeed make comments or changes. 

The name of the file that Shi sent back to Le Duc was “WIV-drf2-zl.docx.” “WIV” may be shorthand for the Wuhan Institute of Virology, while “zl” may refer to Zhengli. 

“I’m afraid that this discussion will continue for some time regarding … exactly when scientists at WIV first became aware of the new coronavirus and had possession of specimens in the WIV and where was that work done (level of biocontainment),” Le Duc told Shi. 

Indeed, when exactly Chinese authorities became aware of SARS-CoV-2 was a key factor in an inconclusive 90-day review into COVID-19’s origins by the U.S. intelligence community compiled a year later.

“Next week will be busy,” Le Duc wrote on April 19, a Sunday.

Two days later, on April 21, a Tuesday, Le Duc told colleagues with the National Academy of Sciences that he had met via teleconference with five or six people with the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. 

He passed along information he had shared with committee staff. One of the files attached was saved as “WIV-4-20-20.docx.”

Le Duc appears to ask Shi to review information he compiled in preparation for questions about when the Wuhan Institute of Virology first learned about the novel coronavirus.

Le Duc had also briefed the full committee’s Republican staff earlier that month, according to notes reviewed by a committee staffer.  

The exchange raises questions about how Shi’s influence may have shaped U.S. lawmakers’ understanding of the pandemic’s origins.  

It also indicates that at the height of a once-in-a-century public health crisis, the sort of coronavirus pandemic that Shi had been warning about for years, she was concerned about U.S. perceptions of her work.

Le Duc referred questions to UTMB Director of Media Relations Christopher A. Smith.

“Your organization’s characterization of Dr. Le Duc’s intent in contacting Dr. Shi is incorrect,” said Smith. “This email was very early in the outbreak and the information Dr. Le Duc wanted Dr. Shi to review was a description of her research on coronaviruses as he understood it. He asked her to review that description to ensure accuracy should he be asked.”

“Nothing ever came from this exchange, either in the form of a review/comments by Dr. Shi or any specific request for comments regarding her research,” he continued.

But the documents show that Le Duc told Shi that she could make any changes she would like to his briefing. 

Smith also said that Le Duc did not testify to Congress. After days of follow-up questions, Smith confirmed that Le Duc had briefed Congressional staff.

A request to see the documents exchanged between Shi and Le Duc was declined. 

Nothing ever came of the email exchange between Le Duc and Shi, a spokesman for the University of Texas Medical Branch said. Pressed further, he confirmed Le Duc had indeed briefed Congressional staff.

Shi’s behind-the-scenes influence

In spring 2020, U.S. foreign policy officials privately circulated concerns that Shi’s international influence in the field of virology could cloud an impartial investigation into the possibility of a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

In a State Department memo obtained by U.S. Right to Know, government officials expressed concerns that international virologists would back up Shi before a complete inquiry into the lab in Wuhan was conducted.

“Suspicion lingers that Shi holds an important and powerful position in the field in China and has extensive cooperation with many [international] virologists who might be doing her a favor,” it reads.

In a media interview in April 2020, Le Duc said that Shi was being unfairly scrutinized. 

“I just hate to see a world-class coronavirologist, who’s dedicated her life working with this, being scrutinized as the possible source,” he said.

Shi shaped the discourse about the possibility of an escape from her lab in other ways, too.

She also edited a Feb. 2020 commentary that declared there was “no credible evidence” behind claims that SARS-CoV-2 may have been genetically engineered, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know last year. 

The commentary’s authors shared a copy with Shi before its publication in Emerging Microbes & Infections, the emails show. 

Her involvement was not disclosed. 

U.S. Right to Know obtained the records for this article through a Texas Public Information Act request to the University of Texas Medical Branch and from a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department.

Written by Emily Kopp 

Biosafety expert close to Wuhan Institute of Virology urged associates there to address his tough questions about lab origin of SARS-CoV-2

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In early 2020, as the world was reeling from the fast spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, a leading biosafety expert with close ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) encouraged scientists there to launch an “investigation” into whether the new disease could have come from the institute, including answering many of his specific questions about lab activities, emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show.

The emails show that James Le Duc, a professor and former director of Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), suggested scientists at the institute in China should not wait for an outside probe, but gather information and be prepared to answer questions about their work and how it may be connected to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

In a Feb. 9, 2020 email to WIV Professor Yuan Zhiming, Le Duc wrote that he thought it was important to “aggressively address these rumors and presumably false accusations quickly and provide definitive, honest information to counter misinformation.”

“If there are weaknesses in your program, now is the time to admit them and get them corrected. I trust that you will take my suggestions in the spirit of one friend trying to help another during a very difficult time,” he wrote.

Though the February 2020 email indicated he downplayed the possibility of a lab leak, only two months later, Le Duc wrote in a separate correspondence to Phillip Russell, former president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, that it was “certainly possible a lab accident was the source of the epidemic and I also agree that we can’t trust the Chinese government.”

Le Duc was no stranger to the Wuhan institute; he had sponsored and trained WIV scientists at the Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory he ran in Galveston, and records show he made multiple trips to Wuhan to train virologists there since 1986.

In 2018 Le Duc co-authored an article in Science magazine with Yuan, who was then director of the WIV BSL-4 laboratory. Le Duc and Yuan referred to their “partnership” in the article, and wrote that they had “engaged in short- and long-term personnel exchanges focused on biosafety training, building operations and maintenance, and collaborative scientific investigations in biocontainment.”

BSL-3 and BSL-4 are biocontainment lab designations for handling dangerous pathogens. The higher level BSL-4 is used for working with the most dangerous high-risk agents, including Ebola and Marburg viruses.

Tough questions go unanswered

In the February 2020 email, Le Duc laid out numerous questions that he thought the WIV should address as part of an investigation into the possibility that the virus was “the result of a release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (main campus or new BSL3/BSL4 facilities).”

Among the questions he posed:

*Where is coronavirus research conducted? What level of biocontainment?

*What are the coronaviruses in your possession that are most closely related to nCoV [novel coronaviruses] based on genetic sequences and are able to replicate in culture?

*Is there an inventory record of each isolate of each coronavirus kept? If so, are there any discrepancies between the record and actual current inventory number?

*  How many people have access to the coronavirus stocks and laboratory?Senior investigators? Junior investigators? Technical support staff? Post-docs? Students? Animal handlers? Janitors and other cleaning staff? Building support personnel? Others?

* Is anyone on your team conducting gain of function studies, recombination studies or any other studies that may have resulted in the creation of the nCoV ?

*Does a serum bank exist for staff and students working on infectious agents? If yes, could a current serum and the most recent banked sera be serologically tested for antibody to nCoV in an effort to document seroconversion?

*Does the Institute have an occupational health clinic where employees and students can go to seek medical care? If so, was there any indication of unusual illness similar to that seen for nCoV among Institute staff?

*Where and when were the first Wuhan (or Hubei Province) residents infected with the nCoV first identified (hospital or clinic name/date of earliest cases)? Do staff members of the Institute reside in the district serviced by this (these) hospital/clinic (s)?

*Do staff members of the Wuhan Institute of Virology frequent the sea food/live market first associated with the nCoV outbreak? Did any staff member visit the market in the weeks prior to it being closed? If so, how many staff frequent the market? How often would they visit the market during the period of interest?

On April 13, 2020, Le Duc forwarded his email to Yuan to David Franz, former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, saying he had never received a response to his questions.

“As we explore trying to reengage our dialogue, some of these questions might be discussed,” he wrote to Franz.

Though the World Health Organization (WHO) has been conducting its own investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, many of the questions raised by Le Duc remain unanswered. And many scientists around the world fear there may never be a full, thorough and unconflicted investigation of the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

The April 2020 exchange between Le Duc and Russell shows that Russell, a physician, vaccine scientist and retired U.S. Army major general who died in 2021, was concerned that a “coverup” of the virus origins may be underway.

Russell wrote: “That does not rule out the possibility that one of the many bat coronaviruses isolated in the Wuhan lab infected a technician who walked out the door. No need for engineering the virus. The flimsiness of the epidemiology pointing to the wet market, the absence of bats in the market, the failure to identify an intermediate animal host, the extraordinary measures taken by the Chinese government, including persecution and probable killing of two brave physicians, to cover up the outbreak, the steps taken to silence the laboratory personnel,. the change in leadership of the lab, all point to the lab as the source of the outbreak.”

“This reminds me of the efforts by Matt Messelson and many colleagues to coverup up the Sverdeslosk [Sverdlovsk] anthrax outbreak,” Russell continued. “They succeeded for many years aided and abetted by many in academia until Ken Alibek defected and the truth came out. I bought the wet market story for months but now am very skeptical of anything information coming from the Chinese government.”

U.S. Right to Know obtained the emails for this article through a Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) request on July 3, 2020. UTMB did not produce these documents until November 23, 2021, more than 16 months later. USRTK filed a second TPIA request with UTMB on September 23, 2020, but more than 14 months later UTMB still has not yet produced any documents in response.

(Edited by Carey Gillam)

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

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.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

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.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

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).