Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci emailed about whether NIH funded Wuhan lab before secret call

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Leaders in infectious diseases research funding may have unduly shaped the public’s understanding of where COVID-19 began, emails suggest. (Photo credit: NIH images)

In the earliest days of the pandemic, Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins emailed about coronaviruses under study at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and about whether they had steered money to the lab, an email obtained by U.S. Right to Know shows.

Collins, then leader of the National Institutes of Health, and Fauci, leader of its infectious diseases institute, exchanged emails on February 1, 2020, about a preprint authored by Zhengli Shi, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. The preprint described bat coronaviruses under study at the lab, including a coronavirus 96 percent genetically similar to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

The emails show that Collins and Fauci were concerned about links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and NIH.

“In case you haven’t seen this preprint from one week ago,” Collins said in a February 1, 2020, email to Fauci. “No evidence this work was supported by NIH.” 

“I did see it, but did not check the similarities. Obviously we need more details,” Fauci replied, a little before noon.

Some details of the short exchange are redacted. 

The email shows that these concerns were top of mind at a critical time. 

About two hours after the email exchange, Collins and Fauci would join a secret teleconference with a group of virologists who were closely examining the novel coronavirus. The teleconference touched off a high profile push to discredit the lab leak hypothesis. 

The revelation that Collins and Fauci were discussing whether NIH had funded work on coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 at the Wuhan lab in the hours before suggests that politics may have been at play.

Those virologists’ claims that the virus could not have been engineered may have been influenced by Collins and Fauci. The NIH leaders may have sought to obscure links between federal funding and coronavirus research at the advancing pandemic’s epicenter. The emails raise questions about these virologists’ assurances that their deliberations were apolitical.

An analysis that framed the teleconference was called “Coronavirus sequence comparison[1].pdf.” This document has apparently not been released to the public, so it’s not clear which coronavirus they were comparing to COVID-19. 

But it’s clear from notes exchanged after the call that an analysis comparing the spike proteins of SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13, the Wuhan Institute of Virology coronavirus with a 96 percent identical genome, had been performed. 

The February 1 teleconference kicked off the drafting of an influential correspondence arguing against the idea that SARS-CoV-2 had been engineered. 

“The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” in Nature Medicine claimed “strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.” 

It has been cited in 752 media outlets.

Collins and Fauci were repeatedly updated on its drafting and provided “advice and leadership.” 

While not disclosed, the participation of NIH’s leaders in drafting the correspondence presented a conflict of interest.

Because while Collins had concluded that NIH did not support that particular study, the agency had indeed funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology for coronavirus work, including the engineering of chimeric viruses that combine components of multiple viruses to make them more infectious to human cells.

Fauci had been alerted days before that his institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, supported a “virus hunting” nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance with a grant called “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence” and that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was a collaborator, according to an email shared with U.S. Right to Know by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. 

Their concerns might have been aggravated further when lead authors of “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” shared concerns that the genome of SARS-CoV-2 appeared “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”

The virologists’ concerns about features of the virus that appeared engineered were shared with Collins and Fauci on January 31, 2020, and again on February 2

RaTG13

The preprint authored by Shi about viruses related to SARS-CoV-2 – including RaTG13 – would eventually be published in Nature and continued to trouble the NIH leaders.

An addendum was added months later clarifying that miners had become sick and died after visiting a cave in Yunnan Province in 2012 where RaTG13 was found after independent researchers uncovered this information, despite RaTG13 being named something else in the earlier literature, stoking suspicions of obfuscation

In August 2020, Collins emailed his predecessor Harold Varmus, former director of the NIH, about an article describing NIH’s pressure on EcoHealth Alliance to provide records about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and another link to an article calling attention to the fact that RaTG13 was identical to the coronavirus that had sickened the miners and postulating a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2.

“Tony and I would like the chance to speak to you about this,” he wrote.

Collins announced his retirement in October 2021 after 12 years as director of NIH. Fauci announced his retirement in August 2022 after 38 years as the director of NIAID.

Collins currently serves as science advisor to President Joe Biden, while Fauci serves as his chief medical advisor. 

Despite stepping back from their roles at NIH, both Collins and Fauci could be called to testify about the origins of COVID-19 if Republicans win a majority in either chamber of Congress this fall, according Republicans poised to wield the gavel in key committees. 

The new emails in this report were obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Institutes of Health. 

Correction 9/7 4:25 p.m.: This article has been corrected to reflect the relationship between RaTG13 and the sickness experienced by the miners is uncertain.

Critic of congressional probe into gain-of-function research helped fund Wuhan gain-of-function study

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Baylor College of Medicine National School of Tropical Medicine President Peter Hotez funded research on a chimeric virus that has come under Congressional scrutiny. (Photo credit: U.S. Mission in Geneva)

A prominent scientist who has denounced a congressional investigation into gain-of-function research helped fund Wuhan Institute of Virology gain-of-function work flagged by congressional investigators. 

Peter Hotez, dean of the Baylor College of Medicine National School of Tropical Medicine, has been a fierce critic of potential hearings next year into a possible lab origin of COVID-19 and whether the National Institutes of Health prematurely discredited the hypothesis.

Hotez decried the hearings as nothing less than “a plan to undermine the fabric of science in America” in a viral tweet thread last week. Hotez also dismissed as an “outlandish conspiracy” the possibility that a lab accident sparked the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Hotez’s own 2012 to 2017 NIH grant for the development of a SARS vaccine had the stated aim of responding to any “accidental release from a laboratory,” in addition to a possible zoonotic spillover of the virus. 

The $6.1 million NIH grant also raises the possibility of “deliberate spreading of the virus by a bioterrorist attack.” 

“SARS outbreaks remain a serious concern mainly due to possible zoonotic reintroduction of SARS-CoV into humans, accidental release from a laboratory or deliberate spreading of the virus by a bioterrorist attack,” the grant’s description reads. 

It’s not clear why Hotez has dismissed a possible lab release of SARS-CoV-2 as preposterous, after having conducted research for years to prepare for a possible accidental or deliberate release of SARS-CoV.

Hotez did not reply to emailed questions.

Hotez helped fund research on controversial chimeric coronavirus

While casting concerns about Wuhan’s labs as “fringe,” Hotez has not mentioned his own connection to a project involving a laboratory-generated chimeric SARS-related coronavirus that has come under Congress’ microscope. 

The project was helmed by Zhengli Shi, a senior scientist and “virus hunter” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology nicknamed the “Bat Lady.” 

As part of his NIH grant, Hotez subcontracted funding for research on combined or “chimeric” coronaviruses, a scientific paper shows. Hotez’s grant underwrote two of Shi’s collaborators on the project.

In the 2017 paper co-funded by Hotez, Shi and her colleagues generated a recombinant virus from two SARS-related coronaviruses: “rWIV1-SHC014S.” 

It’s not clear whether the paper co-funded by Hotez should have been stopped under a temporary “pause” on gain-of-function work before 2017. However, some independent biosecurity experts have said research on this chimeric virus in some ways epitomizes lapses in NIH oversight of risky research in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

A prior study of one of the coronaviruses that comprised the chimera, WIV1, found it to be “poised for human emergence.” Another prior paper on the other coronavirus, SHC014, stated that its future study in lab-generated viruses may be “too risky to pursue.” 

“The work here should have been at the very least, heavily scrutinized,” said David Relman, a Stanford microbiologist and biosecurity expert. “This work should have been heavily reviewed for [gain-of-function], and probably should have been subject to the pause prior to December 2017.” 

Shi’s participation in the joint project was funded in part by EcoHealth Alliance, the paper shows. This NIH grant to EcoHealth — “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence”has garnered scrutiny for its research on manipulated novel coronaviruses in Wuhan labs. 

Specifically, an EcoHealth Alliance grant report obtained by congressional investigators demonstrated that a WIV1-SHC014 chimera generated thousands of times the viral load and enhanced lethality in mice with human airway cells. This prompted concerns among some biosecurity experts, scientists and members of Congress

In response to questions from congressional Republicans, NIH acknowledged that the research was out of compliance with its own regulations on gain-of-function research. 

“In this limited experiment, laboratory mice infected with SHC014 WIV1 bat coronavirus became sicker than those infected with WIV1 bat coronavirus,” the letter read. “As sometimes occurs in science, this was an unexpected result rather than something the scientists set out to do.”

An investigation could shed light on whether the risks of such experiments outweigh the benefits, but Hotez has not been forthcoming about this apparent conflict of interest.

“The construction and threat-characterization of rWIV1-SHC014 was – unequivocally – gain-of-function research,” said Richard Ebright, Rutgers Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry at Rutgers University. “It is a conflict of interest that, to my knowledge, has not previously been disclosed to The Lancet Commission … and that surely will be of interest to The Lancet Commission.” 

The Lancet Commission

Hotez serves on The Lancet COVID-19 Commission, a panel of experts working to scrutinize the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

Commission Chair Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist, has in recent weeks called for an impartial investigation of the lab leak hypothesis.

Meanwhile, Hotez has suggested that the commission’s final reports should not incorporate Sachs’ concerns.

“Whenever I discussed the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was a laboratory release, Hotez strongly rejected that possibility, but never explained to me or to the Lancet Commission that he actually had a grant that was based on that very kind of risk. He should certainly have been clear on that,” said Sachs.

Sachs said the 2017 paper generated questions about whether a potential conflict of interest should have been disclosed to the commission. 

“I asked all of the Commissioners repeatedly to be transparent about any possible conflicts of interest,” Sachs added.

Another missing database? EcoHealth project in Southeast Asia is under construction

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Scientists tasked by the WHO to outline next steps toward investigating the origin of COVID-19 have pointed to bat populations in Southeast Asia. (Photo credit: MyBukit)

EcoHealth Alliance conducted field research for years in Southeast Asia, a region central to the origin of COVID-19, but some of the data appears to have been withdrawn from public view.

EcoHealth Alliance, an American scientific organization that receives funds from several federal agencies, has come under scrutiny for its controversial work hunting for novel viruses in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab at the pandemic’s epicenter. 

One of the group’s projects in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia — the Infectious Disease Emergence and Economics of Altered Landscapes Project or “IDEEAL” — culminated in a disease modeling app that no longer appears on the EcoHealth Alliance website

A final report summarizing the project in 2019 describes the app as functional, but it appears that the link that once housed the project’s app is now broken, and the organization’s website instead links to a page that states it is “under construction.” 

“The app’s domain is currently under construction,” said Majelia Ampadu, communications director for EcoHealth Alliance. 

Requests for more details were not answered. 

Another website describing the IDEEAL project – the url of which was discovered through grant reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests – was taken down in the summer or fall of 2021, according to the WayBack Machine.

IDEEAL worked on minimizing human diseases associated with deforestation, not virus hunting, and focused on malaria, not coronaviruses. But IDEEAL also worked closely with another USAID-funded project that searched for novel viruses called PREDICT, including sharing staff. 

IDEEAL’s app may have pulled data from EcoHealth’s work hunting for viruses in wildlife with PREDICT, the grant reports show.

“Models will be parameterized using empirical data from our extensive collection of datasets as well as existing datasets and new data generated by USAID investments including EPT PREDICT,” one grant document reads. 

And IDEEAL’s modeling has become unavailable at a time of intense interest in disease emergence in Southeast Asia.

The World Health Organization’s Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens – which examines the state of the evidence and makes recommendations for further study – has pointed to bat populations in Southeast Asia, where scientists identified the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2. 

French and Laotian scientists located coronaviruses in Northern Laos with highly similar receptor-binding domains in 2020, but they proved much less dangerous in the lab without SARS-CoV-2’s signature furin cleavage site, a recent preprint suggests. These discoveries underscore the importance for more sampling in Southeast Asia, as well as retrospective tests of old samples, according to the WHO team. 

EcoHealth Alliance sampled wildlife in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar, and the samples were tested by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, according to documents obtained via FOIA by the animal rights group White Coat Waste Project

Some experts in biosafety have voiced concerns that a lab accident with a novel virus may have sparked the COVID-19 pandemic. While virologists agree none of the Wuhan lab’s known viral backbones are progenitors of SARS-CoV-2, a key question is whether unknown coronaviruses identified in wildlife may have been studied there, and whether that data may be accessible through records kept by its American partner.

A central disagreement between scientists who favor the natural origin theory and scientists who worry about a lab accident is whether SARS-CoV-2 traveled hundreds of miles from Southeast Asia to the metropolis of Wuhan, China, due to virus hunting or due to the wildlife trade.

EcoHealth Alliance Malaysian Project Coordinator Tom Hughes said in an email that all of the coronaviruses identified by the team have been shared in another database called GenBank. Hughes shared the unique identifiers for PCR fragments of coronaviruses identified by PREDICT in Malaysia between May 2016 and August 2020.

Still, the IDEEAL app’s unavailability follows a pattern of opacity about data on the part of EcoHealth Alliance and its partner in Wuhan. For example, EcoHealth President Peter Daszak sought to prevent the release of viral samples taken in China after the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, U.S. Right to Know previously reported. The Wuhan Institute of Virology’s extensive coronavirus database went dark in 2019.

The IDEEAL project was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, for nearly $2.5 million. U.S. Right to Know obtained a grant proposal through Freedom of Information Act requests to USAID. 

Some biosafety experts say that data should be taken offline if it poses security risks — if a nefarious actor threatens to exploit it, for example — but that otherwise scientists should strive for public trust.

“All research with potential societal implications and downside risks, including EHA’s virus hunting, should be publicly recorded to create accountability,” said Jonas Sandbrink, a biosecurity researcher at the University of Oxford.

When organizations like EcoHealth Alliance are dismissive of concerns, it damages more thoughtful researchers, according to David Gillum, assistant vice president of environmental health and safety at Arizona State University.

“It puts this dark cloud over the people who are doing it right. It makes it hard for an average person to know who’s doing it right and who’s skirting the rules,” said Gillum.

A grant proposal shows that EcoHealth pitched IDEEAL as incorporating data from virus hunting work.

‘We have this SARS-like coronavirus not very far from here’

It’s clear that EcoHealth uncovered at least one novel coronavirus they believed was capable of spilling over into humans in Southeast Asia. 

“We have this SARS-like coronavirus in the cave not very far from here,” said Hughes in a 2017 Malaysian documentary. “If that spills over, it would be very, very damaging to the Malaysian economy and the global economy.”

The documentary also features a graduate student in an EcoHealth Alliance T-shirt. He states that the team discovered three novel viruses poised for spread among humans, including a SARS-related coronavirus. 

This sarbecovirus is known as PREDICT-51, according to Hughes. A U.S. Right to Know analysis of the PREDICT-51’s genetic sequence demonstrates that it does not bear much resemblance to SARS-CoV-2. Their genomes overlap by just 58 percent.

A separate app built by another PREDICT partner, the University of California Davis, named “SpillOver,” lists viruses that the PREDICT project identified. 

The app categorizes the viruses in Malaysia as being relatively low to moderate risk – about 50 to 80 points on a 155 point scale.

EcoHealth Alliance referred questions as to whether the viruses listed in the SpillOver app represent a complete list of the sarbecoviruses identified to UC Davis. 

UC Davis did not respond. 

While there are many exceptions and carve-outs, the Federal Records Act generally holds that federal contractors maintain records for three years, according to Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union. The grant period for the IDEEAL ended in Feb. 2019, 41 months ago.

Virologist who tried to discredit the lab leak theory was once a ‘partner’ to EcoHealth Alliance

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Columbia University virologist Ian Lipkin has coauthored several articles with EcoHealth Alliance since 2011. (Photo credit: kris krüg)

A virologist who coauthored a paper marginalizing the lab leak theory did not disclose his ties to the research group at the center of it.

Director of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity Ian Lipkin has often worked with EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the group confirmed in an email. 

EcoHealth Alliance listed Lipkin as a “partner” from 2012 to 2014, an archived version of the group’s website shows. Lipkin has coauthored at least ten scientific papers with EcoHealth researchers from 2011 to 2021, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak said in an email. These publications include a paper about novel coronaviruses EcoHealth and its partners sampled around the world. 

EcoHealth Alliance hunts for novel viruses in wildlife and funds research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Lipkin did not disclose his partnership with EcoHealth in “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2,” a highly influential paper that states that COVID-19 arose from nature.

A central premise of that paper: COVID-19 is too dissimilar from viruses commonly employed in experiments to have spilled out of a lab. 

“It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus,” the paper states. “The genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.”

But Lipkin did not disclose his connection to a nonprofit that uncovers new and novel viruses. Some of those viruses were likely studied at its partnering lab in Wuhan, which housed one of the world’s largest collection of bat coronaviruses. 

Lipkin did not return several requests for comment. 

At 5.7 million views, the Nature Medicine article may be one of the most widely read scientific papers in history — though the piece is formally a “correspondence.” 

David Relman, a Stanford University microbiologist and emerging infectious diseases expert for the National Academies, said conflicts of interest are especially troublesome when writing on high profile issues. 

“For any major, controversial issue, I believe that all of us have an even greater responsibility to reveal those conflicts upfront—and let others have an opportunity to judge what effect those conflicts might have had,” said Relman.

Relman also called into question the logic of the paper’s premise. The Wuhan Institute of Virology may have simply been experimenting with unfamiliar viruses. The disappearance of the lab’s coronavirus sequence database in 2019 and the lab’s history of gain-of-function experiments also weaken the claims of Lipkin and his coauthors, Relman said. 

“The Proximal Origins paper is flawed in its assumptions, logic and the soundness of its conclusions. I was very surprised that it passed review at Nature Medicine,” he said. 

Columbia University Center for Sustainable Development Director Jeffrey Sachs — chair of The Lancet COVID-19 Commission — said the citation the authors used to prop up the paper’s premise deserves more scrutiny. 

“The Proximal Origins paper has no credibility,” Sachs wrote in an email. “The paper’s central claim — that SARS-CoV-2 is not related to viruses previously reported in laboratory research — offers as proof a footnote to a 2014 paper!”

“It ludicrously claims to debunk a 2019 lab emergence using a 2014 paper,” he continued. “The paper offers no real evidence whatsoever against the possible lab origin of the virus, even though it claimed to do so.” 

Lipkin himself has since acknowledged the possibility that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was experimenting with unknown viruses, contradicting the popular paper he coauthored.

“If they’ve got hundreds of bat samples that are coming in, and some of them aren’t characterized, how would they know whether this virus was or wasn’t in this lab? They wouldn’t,” Lipkin said in an interview with the Washington Post last year. 

But Lipkin has not disclosed his work with EcoHealth to reporters.

Nature Medicine, the journal that published the paper, defines a “competing interest” requiring disclosure as including “personal or professional relations with organizations and individuals” — paid or unpaid. A spokesperson for parent company Springer Nature did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Lipkin’s connection to a group at the center of lab leak suspicions is the latest revelation to cast doubt on the correspondence.

Significant questions remain. It’s still unclear how the authors dispelled their own private concerns that the virus had been engineered within a couple of days.

For example, Lipkin privately voiced concerns to his coauthors about a “nightmare of circumstantial evidence” pointing to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Vanity Fair reported

It’s also unknown to what extent leaders of the National Institutes of Health, which funded the EcoHealth Alliance, may have shaped the paper. 

Grant reports that led a reporter to the defunct link showing Lipkin’s partnership with EcoHealth Alliance were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

FOIA reveals another secret call on COVID’s origin. The details are redacted.

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Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar, pictured here in 2019, hosted a series of teleconferences with top virologists discussing whether the pandemic was the result of a lab accident in early 2020. Notes from a Feb. 7 meeting were obtained by USRTK, but are fully redacted. (Photo credit: World Economic Forum)

Top virologists may have continued privately discussing “all theories” of the pandemic’s origin in the days after they began outlining an influential article that dismissed the lab leak theory in February 2020, an email obtained by U.S. Right to Know suggests.

The group — led by Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar and University of Sydney virologist Edward Holmes — apparently continued dissecting the data on Feb. 7, three days after the article was first drafted.  

“Eddie Holmes and a small group have been looking extensively at the origins and evolution of n-CoV including all theories,” Farrar wrote in an email on the morning of Feb. 8, 2020, to National Academy of Medicine President Victor Dzau, referring to an early abbreviation for the new novel coronavirus.

“This is the latest summary, written as part of a series of [teleconference] discussions we set up and included [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci] and [National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins] as well as a small group from USA, UK, Europe and Australia,” Farrar wrote. 

It’s not clear whether the group had concluded the virus arose naturally by that date, or whether the lab origin hypothesis was still in play. 

Six pages of notes from the Feb. 7 discussion are fully redacted.

Dzau forwarded Farrar’s message to National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt and President Trump’s Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier. 

McNutt later forwarded the email with an attachment called “Summary.Feb7.pdf.” 

The redacted documents surface as questions swirl about whether virologists consulting with NIH leadership may have prepared a public relations blitz to marginalize the “lab leak theory” at the same time they privately wrestled with it. 

Three days earlier, on Feb. 4, Farrar had shared with Fauci a first draft of a correspondence co-authored by Holmes titled “​​The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” that ultimately dismissed the possibility of a lab accident, according to emails transcribed by congressional staff. 

Farrar held a series of teleconferences with about 11 scientists around the world in early February. Fauci attended at least two of these teleconferences, according to a separate email released under FOIA by BuzzFeed News

While a Feb. 1 meeting of the Farrar group had been disclosed through that earlier FOIA request and a subsequent congressional investigation, the Feb. 7 meeting has not been previously reported. 

In a tweet after this story’s publication, Scripps Research virologist Kristian Andersen, a coauthor of the “proximal origin” article, said that the emails reported by U.S. Right to Know do not refer to one of these teleconferences, but did not provide further detail.

“There was no ‘teleconference’ on Feb 7,” he wrote. “Time for a new conspiracy theory.”

Andersen did not directly reply to a request for comment.

These teleconferences have come under scrutiny in recent months, as journalists and congressional committees have uncovered that three of the five authors of the “proximal origin” article had concluded on Jan. 31 that the genome of SARS-CoV-2 was “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”

On Feb. 4, Farrar emailed Fauci and Collins that he was split “50-50” between a lab origin and natural origin and that Holmes was split “60-40,” leaning toward a lab origin. 

The participation of Fauci and Collins on the calls and their possible involvement in the shaping of the “proximal origin” article have raised concerns about a conflict of interest. NIH funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a connection Fauci may have been aware of by Feb. 1.

The scientists, including Fauci, have countered that the about-face —  from believing a lab origin was probable on Feb. 1 to a consensus that it was improbable in the article first circulated on Feb. 4 — simply reflected the scientific method at work

Notes from the Feb. 7 meeting may help clarify whether this shift indeed reflected rigorous scientific inquiry or amounted to a coverup. 

Requests to Farrar, Dzau, McNutt, each of the five “proximal origin” authors, and NIH to see notes from the Feb. 7 meeting were not returned. 

While Farrar’s memoir Spike describes his sleepless nights following these teleconferences on the pandemic’s source, it does not mention the Feb. 7 meeting. Farrar’s book describes the Feb. 1 meeting, then jumps to the March 17 publication of the “proximal origin” paper. 

Farrar directed questions to a media officer for the Wellcome Trust, who cited a January statement about COVID’s origins.  

“The scientific evidence continues to point to SARS-CoV-2 crossing from animals to humans as the most likely scenario,” the statement reads. “However, as the efforts to gather evidence continue, it is important to stay open-minded and work together internationally to understand the emergence of Covid and variant strains.”

Holmes did not respond to a request for comment. 

The National Academies 

Farrar’s email to the leader of the National Academy of Medicine coincided with a call by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for the prestigious professional society to investigate the pandemic’s origin. 

“I sent a memo from OSTP to [the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine] about data needs … and a meeting was held that same day, though I didn’t attend (one of my staff did),” Droegemeier told U.S. Right to Know in an email. “NASEM responded in writing on February 6 saying that additional genomic sequence data were needed to determine the origin of the virus.”

The NASEM held a call with experts on Feb. 3, including two U.S.-based collaborators of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

Andersen was also on the call. 

Andersen described the possibility that the virus was manipulated as “crackpot” in an email to the other NASEM participants. He urged the Academies to push back on it more forcefully in its public response to OSTP. 

Just four days after voicing concerns that the viral genome appeared “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory,” he recommended the Academies use the language “consistent with [natural evolution]” in its reply.

Droegemeier said he did not recall the email from Farrar and does not have access to emails since he left public service. 

U.S. Right to Know obtained the email through a Freedom of Information Act request to OSTP as part of an investigation into risky virology research funded with taxpayer dollars. 

Updated June 3, 1:13 p.m. to reflect public comments by Kristian Andersen

U.S. Right to Know confirms a third maximum containment lab in China

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Representatives of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences are pictured with representatives of the University of Texas Medical Branch in September 2014. (Photo credit: UTMB)

A new maximum biocontainment lab in Kunming, China, was certified three years ago while remaining under-the-radar in the U.S. biodefense community, documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show.

China’s plans to build an ABSL-4 under the Institute of Medical Biology and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Kunming were previously known. But U.S. Right to Know can report for the first time that the lab has long been accredited by the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment, a pivotal step toward becoming operational. Animal biosafety level four, or ABSL-4, refers to the level of biosafety precautions needed to study the world’s most dangerous viruses and other pathogens in animals. 

The quiet start at the Kunming lab could suggest skittishness among Chinese authorities about publicizing it due to the controversy surrounding another BSL-4 lab – the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It also underscores that international standards for reporting and transparency have lagged behind the proliferation of labs working with pandemic potential pathogens. 

The “Kunming National Primate Research Center of High Level Biosafety” received accreditation in late 2018 or early 2019, according to a presentation given at a U.S.-China summit. 

The lab works with rhesus monkeys, according to the documents. 

Yunzhang Hu, a professor at the Institute of Medical Biology, told the summit that the lab’s aims include developing medical countermeasures and supporting emergency response to emerging infectious diseases. 

While U.S. institutions like the National Academies were aware of the Kunming lab, it was apparently not widely understood that the lab has been making strides toward research on high risk pathogens for years. 

A World Health Organization report in 2017 listed three BSL-4 or ABSL-4 labs in China: two in operation in Wuhan and Harbin and a third planned in Beijing. The Kunming lab is not mentioned. A map of BSL-4 labs assembled by top Western biodefense experts does not report the Kunming lab either. 

While the lab’s work appeared in scientific papers in 2020 and 2021, demonstrating it was operational, China may not have publicized it in part because of international concerns about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a BSL-4 lab at the pandemic’s epicenter, according to Gregory Koblentz, director of the biodefense program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and co-creator of the map. Koblentz said he became aware of the lab shortly after his map was published in 2021 and that it would be added to its next iteration.

The maximum containment lab in Kunming is one of five to seven China has slated to construct by 2025, Nature reported. Accreditation from the CNAS is needed before the Ministry of Health can approve a BSL-4 lab, according to the scientific journal.

Efforts to support BSL-4 work in Kunming predate the lab’s accreditation.

U.S. researchers funded by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases traveled to Kunming in 2014 to review animal facilities and present information on BSL-4 technical requirements, according to a federal grant report. Training continued throughout the year. The Kunming lab’s researchers traveled to a U.S. maximum biocontainment lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch for further training. 

U.S.-China summit

The U.S.-China dialogue was co-hosted by the National Academy of Sciences and held in Harbin, China, in January 2019. The topics centered on the opportunities and risks of gene editing in infectious diseases research.

The Harbin summit was the fourth in a series on biosafety involving both American and Chinese institutions, and came just a year before reports of a novel coronavirus first emerged from Wuhan.

U.S. biodefense experts began planning in June for a firth summit slated for October or November 2019, according to other documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. But Chinese partners suggested a summit under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan rather than under the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Kunming, the emails indicate. 

The January summit in Harbin included presentations from many experts who have since become central to the COVID-19 origins controversy. The summit included two sessions on “science and ethics in research with pathogens with pandemic potential” and “understanding and engineering viral pathogens with pandemic potential.” The sessions described technical challenges with engineering chimeric viruses as well as the safety and ethical questions the technology raises. 

Zhengli Shi, a top virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, discussed the impact that spike binding domains play in determining whether MERS viruses can spillover from animal to human hosts.

Ralph Baric, one of the world’s leading coronavirus researchers at the University of North Carolina and a collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, gave a presentation on the lack of predictability when engineering viruses to be more pathogenic. 

He spoke about a “sweet spot” that optimizes the ability of a virus to infect humans and cause severe disease. 

“Creating a virus that is super-adapted to a particular host can actually result in an attenuation of virulence, if the virus interacts overly strongly with a cellular receptor,” the summary of his comments reads. “This shows the complexity of deliberate design as well as the potential sweet spot for pathogenicity.”

This unpredictability can undermine the value of models that attempt to predict viral evolution and the danger a virus could pose to humans, he said. 

Baric also said that a combination of altering a virus’ receptor binding domain and passaging through mice can sometimes be required to generate more dangerous viruses.

Baric also noted the ease of synthesizing coronaviruses, saying the cost had decreased from $42,000 to $6,000, and the relative ease of using CRISPR technology to create humanized mice. 

Stanford School of Medicine microbiologist David Relman ⁠— who has recently been critical of virologists who have prematurely declared the origins debate settled ​​⁠— gave a presentation on responsibly preventing lab accidents as BSL-4 labs proliferate. Relman also raised questions about the feasibility and safety of the Global Virome Project, an effort to collect and catalog millions of animal viruses involving EcoHealth Alliance and Shi. 

“In an era in which most viruses can be synthesized from a genetic sequence, the discovery of new viruses and elucidation of their properties may present both biosafety and biosecurity concerns,” Relman told the group.

Chinese experts expressed concerns about these issues too.

An expert with Tianjin University told the summit that balancing the positive uses and potential for misuse of pandemic potential pathogens made in the lab poses challenges.

The expert voiced concerns about “the potential for rapid changes in science and technology capabilities to outpace ethical and regulatory measures, and the need for appropriate governance,” the summary reads. 

China has invested at least $150 million to $240 million in approximately 50 synthetic biology research projects since 2018, according to the presentation. 

A summary of the summit’s presentations was obtained by U.S. Right to Know through a Freedom of Information Act litigation against the U.S. Department of Education, which had conducted an investigation of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Wuhan Iab can delete data in ‘explosive’ legal agreement with U.S. lab

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The interior of the Galveston National Laboratory is pictured. (Photo credit: UTMB)

April 20, 3:40 p.m.: This story has been updated with comment from UTMB. 

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has the right to ask a partnering lab in the U.S. to destroy all records of their work, according to a legal document obtained by U.S. Right to Know. 

A memorandum of understanding between the Wuhan lab and the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch states that each lab can ask the other to return or “destroy” any so-called “secret files” — any communications, documents, data or equipment resulting from their collaboration — and ask that they wipe any copies. 

“The party is entitled to ask the other to destroy and/or return the secret files, materials and equipment without any backups,” it states. 

This right is retained even after the agreement’s five year term ends in October 2022. All documents are eligible for destruction under the agreement’s broad language.

“All cooperation … shall be treated as confidential information by the parties,” the agreement states.

The directors of the maximum biocontainment labs in Wuhan and Texas announced a formal cooperative agreement in Science in 2018. The labs are two of just a handful of facilities in the world that do similar cutting edge work on novel coronaviruses. The lab in Texas, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, was doing biosafety training with the lab in Wuhan, which operates under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The labs also intended to do joint research projects and share resources, according to the agreement. 

The revelation that the Wuhan lab retained the right to call for the destruction of data on U.S. servers funded by U.S. taxpayers comes amid a debate about what sort of investigation is necessary to exculpate the city’s coronavirus research from suspicions it sparked the COVID-19 pandemic. It also raises questions about assurances from Wuhan Institute of Virology senior scientist Zhengli Shi that she would never delete sensitive data.

The clause also raises a number of legal red flags for the Texas lab, experts say.

“The clause is quite frankly explosive,” said Reuben Guttman, a partner at Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC who specializes in ensuring the integrity of government programs. “Anytime I see a public entity, I would be very concerned about destroying records.”

Guttman said that even private entities are expected to have internal records retention and destruction policies, but that as a public institution the Texas lab faces an even higher standard under laws meant to safeguard federal and state taxpayer dollars. These laws include the federal False Claims Act and the Texas Public Information Act. The Galveston National Laboratory is part of the University of Texas System and receives federal funding. 

“You can’t just willy nilly say, ‘well, you know, the Chinese can tell us when to destroy a document.’ It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “There has to be a whole protocol.”

The clause could also risk obstructing Congressional investigations into the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Texas lab was “built by the National Institutes of Health to help combat global health threats,” said Christopher Smith, a spokesman for UTMB, in a statement. “As a government-funded entity, UTMB is required to comply with applicable public information law obligations, including the preservation of all documentation of its research and findings.”

“UTMB believes it is an operational — and moral — imperative that all scientists working in biocontainment anywhere in the world have first-hand knowledge of the proven best practices in biosafety and laboratory operations,” Smith continued. “All research at UTMB is subjected to a rigorous and transparent pre-experiment approval protocol, including involvement and oversight by scientific experts who helped design federal guidelines.”

Only the Texas attorney general can make a determination about what otherwise releasable public records should be exempted from disclosure, according to Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. It’s also unlawful to destroy records requested under the Texas Public Information Act. 

Liza Vertinsky, an expert in global health law and intellectual property at Emory University, said that the all-encompassing definition of what is considered “secret” in the memorandum of understanding, or MOU, is problematic. 

“The way I read the MOU, although it is poorly drafted, ‘secret’ refers to the ‘cooperation and exchanges, documents, data, details and materials’ that are part of this MOU,”  she said. “It is as broad as the MOU, covering what the MOU is intended to cover.”

Edward Hammond, an independent biosafety proponent and a longtime advocate for more transparency at the Galveston lab, also flagged the broad language.

“In agreements like this that I’ve seen before, you have confidentiality provisions in relation to intellectual property…I can’t recall seeing an instance of these more general confidentiality provisions,” he said in an email. “Doesn’t this run against the purportedly pure academic interests of UTMB?”

In 2009, the Galveston lab unsuccessfully lobbied the Texas legislature for an exemption to the Texas Public Information Act to be written in order to prevent records being released to Hammond. 

WIV calls data deletion accusations appalling

The agreement could also undermine claims that the WIV would never delete records. A WIV virus database that went dark in 2019 remains a source of intrigue for reporters, scientists, and U.S. intelligence agencies interested in the pandemic’s origins. 

Wuhan Institute of Virology senior scientist Zhengli Shi told MIT Technology Review that allegations by Western biosecurity experts that her lab may have scrubbed records relevant to COVID-19 are “baseless and appalling.” 

“Even if we gave them all the records, they would still say we have hidden something or we have destroyed the evidence,” Shi told the outlet, which cast any such suspicions as rooted in anti-Chinese prejudice. 

The agreement also seems to address suspicions that the partnership could aid a bioweapons program either in the U.S. or in China, stating the labs will “exchange the virus resources strictly for the scientific research purposes.”

A number of clunky or unusual provisions in the agreement suggests it may have been drafted at least in part by Chinese partners and translated into English. 

For example, it states nothing in the agreement should be construed as establishing a relationship between “master and servant,” unusual language in modern American legal documents. 

Other documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know demonstrate that despite the formal collaboration, Galveston National Laboratory faced delays in obtaining a sample of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from its partner lab at the pandemic’s epicenter. The Texas lab ended up obtaining its first sample from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

U.S. Right to Know obtained the WIV-UTMB memorandum of understanding through the Texas Public Information Act as part of an investigation into risky viral research funded through taxpayer dollars.

Written by Emily Kopp 

Emails raise questions about China’s sway over first WHO mission on COVID-19

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A WHO mission to China led by Bruce Aylward offered the world a first glimpse at COVID-19, but the picture may have been distorted by politics. (Photo credit: WHO)

An early World Health Organization report about the COVID-19 pandemic was influenced by political considerations in China, emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show.

A World Health Organization mission of 13 international experts and 12 Chinese experts ⁠— led by Bruce Aylward, a senior advisor at the World Health Organization, and Wannian Liang, an epidemiologist representing the People’s Republic of China ⁠— was influential to the globe’s understanding of the novel coronavirus. The report was prepared in Feb. 2020, when the rest of the world knew little about SARS-CoV-2.

The new emails follow reports that Chinese authorities exerted tight control over a second WHO mission in January 2021. Liang served on both missions. 

China insisted that the WHO’s first mission meet China’s need for an admiring assessment of its COVID-19 response and plans. 

“In an excellent and encouraging discussion with Liang on the train we agreed that the best way to ensure we meet China’s need for a strong assessment of its response and where it plans to go next, would be to add [REDACTED],” Aylward wrote

The report is a glowing paean of China’s mitigation measures and its data sharing. 

“In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” the report’s number one takeaway reads.

Aylward’s email suggests this section – the report’s “major conclusions” – may have been added to “accommodate” the Chinese scientists.

Other international members of the mission recommended that Aylward “dial it back a bit for a public audience and at least hint at shortcomings.”

Alyward may have anticipated pushback on the laudatory section, saying “it is the opinions of the Internationals that matter most here.”

Aylward, who remains a senior advisor to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, did not respond to a request for comment.

The email also suggests that Wang Bin, deputy director general of China’s Disease Prevention and Control Bureau of the National Health Commission, sought to nix certain recommendations in a section dedicated to the public, but they are not specified. 

In communications with the CDC, Aylward and mission member and infectious-diseases physician at the National University Hospital in Singapore Dale Fisher were “highly complementary” and “did not question the data coming from China,” Director of the CDC’s Global Disease Detection Operations Center Ray Arthur told colleagues. 

Some concerns about China’s response or data were flagged to CDC by Aylward and Fisher, but the nature of those concerns are redacted. 

They were not discussed publicly by Aylward at the press conference that followed the report’s release, during which Aylward repeatedly applauded China’s response to the pandemic.

“It’s the opinion of the joint mission, after looking at it very closely and in different ways, that there is no question that China’s bold approach to the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of what was a rapidly escalating and continues to be deadly epidemic,” Aylward said

The pressure to appease Chinese authorities may have impacted the mission’s report in other ways.

For example, Aylward refused to sign his name to the report unless references to “SARS-CoV-2” were removed.

“Definitely do not use SARS-COV2 – I’m not signing anything with that in it,” Aylward wrote. “I’m not going to be part of that mess.”

Aylward said that his concerns surrounded the “deep history of this country with SARS.”

SARS-CoV-2, the now widely accepted name for the virus that causes COVID-19, was initially resisted by Chinese virologists and the WHO because it tied COVID-19 to the 2003 SARS outbreak and therefore to China.

Wuhan Institute of Virology coronavirus researcher Shi Zhengli appealed to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses for the virus to be renamed to something like TARS-CoV or HARS-CoV, U.S. Right to Know reported last year.

Premature conclusions

Other key details that could shed a light on the impact of China’s influence are redacted.

But it is clear that some of the report’s takeaways were premature. The report concluded that the pandemic had a zoonotic origin, stating it in at least three places. 

WHO Chief Dr. Tedros indicated in a recent interview with U.S. Right to Know that he considers both a natural spillover and a lab accident to be possible scenarios. 

“COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus,” the Feb. 2020 report states. “The intermediate host(s) has not yet been identified. However, three important areas of work are already underway in China to inform our understanding of the zoonotic origin of this outbreak,” namely sampling at the city’s wet market and an investigation into the species sold there.

The report states that “early cases identified in Wuhan are believed to be have [sic] acquired infection from a zoonotic source as many reported visiting or working in the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market.”

“Wet markets were closed, and efforts were made to identify the zoonotic source,” the report states a third time.

One of the “knowledge gaps” identified by the WHO mission was the “animal original source and natural reservoir” of the virus. 

The report does not mention a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or China CDC lab in Wuhan as a possible origin of Covid-19.

“It seems quite clear that China exerted some influence over the WHO-China joint mission. It certainly has handicapped WHO in its investigation of the origins of SARS-CoV-2,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law.

China’s eagerness to suppress questions about Wuhan labs as a possible origin of SARS-CoV-2 has been previously reported.

For example, second WHO mission to China in January 2021 concluded that the lab accident hypothesis was an “extremely unlikely pathway.” WHO mission head Peter Ben Embarek later said that language was the result of a compromise with Chinese experts, who initially pushed to exclude any mention of a lab accident from the report altogether. The White House expressed “deep concerns” about China strong-arming its work.

The Feb. 2020 mission report was circulated with CDC experts responding to the rapidly unfolding pandemic in the U.S., another email obtained by U.S. Right to Know shows. 

The report was shared with dozens of U.S. CDC offices and employees – including Global Disease Detection Operations Center, the head of the division of high consequence pathogens and pathology, the head of the division of global health protection, and leaders of the agency’s COVID-19 response in Rwanda, South Sudan, the Congo and Uganda. 

The report was produced over a 9-day period from February 16 to February 24, 2020. The team visited Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangdong, Chengdu and Sichuan. “Select team members only” visited Wuhan for two days.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the emails reported on in this article from a Freedom of Information Act submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and risky research funded with taxpayer dollars.

Written by Emily Kopp 

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 

Lab accident is ‘most likely but least probed’ COVID origin, State Dept. memo says

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Wuchang Station in Wuhan, China, is pictured in 2013. (Credit: Tauno Tõhk)

State Department officials considered a lab accident to be the most likely cause of COVID-19 in the pandemic’s early months and worried that international virologists may help with a coverup, according to a 2020 memo obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

“Origin of the outbreak: The Wuhan labs remained the most likely but least probed,” reads the topline. 

The memo is written as a BLUF – “bottom line up front” – a style of communication used in the military. The identity of the author or authors is unknown. 

In response to questions from a reporter, a State Department spokesperson referred U.S. Right to Know to an inconclusive 90-day review by the intelligence community in 2021.

“BLUF: There is no direct, smoking gun evidence to prove that a leak from Wuhan labs caused the pandemic, but there is circumstantial evidence to suggest such is the case,” the memo reads.

Apparently drafted in spring 2020, the memo details circumstantial evidence for the “lab leak” theory — the idea that COVID-19 originated at one of the labs in Wuhan, China, the pandemic’s epicenter. 

The memo raises concerns about the “massive amount” of research on novel coronaviruses apparently conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control lab. 

“The central issue involves the WCDC and WIV’s obsession with collecting and testing a massive amount of virus-carrying bats,” the memo reads.  

A progenitor of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is believed to have circulated in bats.

The memo also flags biosafety lapses at both labs, calling the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s “management of deadly viruses and virus-carrying lab animals … appallingly poor and negligent.”

The memo provides an extraordinary window into behind-the-scenes concerns about a lab accident among U.S. foreign policy leaders, even as this line of inquiry was deemed a conspiracy theory by international virologists, some of whom had undisclosed conflicts of interest.

The memo also calls into question these virologists’ impartiality. 

Shi Zhengli, a Wuhan Institute of Virology coronavirus researcher nicknamed the “Bat Woman,” has forged wide-reaching international collaborations, including with prestigious Western virologists, the memo notes. 

“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. 

Though perhaps unknown to State Department officials at the time, one of the most influential scientists “debunking” the lab leak theory in the media, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, had undisclosed ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

China’s clampdown 

The memo laments that “the most logical place to investigate the virus origin has been completely sealed off from inquiry by the [Chinese Communist Party].”

“A gag order to both places was issued on [January 1, 2020], and a Major General from the [People’s Liberation Army] took over the WIV since early January,” it states. 

China has strictly controlled information about the pandemic’s origins, including barring access to the mine shaft where one of the viruses most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 was discovered, and pressuring the investigators preparing a 2021 World Health Organization report. 

The memo even suggests that other hypotheses may have served as a distraction from a probe of the city’s extensive research on novel coronaviruses. 

“All other theories are likely to be a decoy to prevent an inquiry [into] the WCDC and WIV,” it states.

While certain portions of the memo were previously reported in the Washington Times, many details, including the depth of concern about a coverup, were not previously known. The memo has never been published in full. 

The circumstantial evidence

The circumstantial evidence presented in the memo seems to draw from public sources. 

Some of that evidence has been shored up over the last two years.

For example, it makes note of so-called “gain-of-function” research Shi collaborated on that made coronaviruses more virulent and transmissible in the lab. 

“[The Wuhan Institute of Virology]’s lead coronavirus scientist Shi Zhengli conducted genetic engineering of bat virus to make it easily transmissible to humans,” the memo states.

That has since been verified by media reports, in peer reviewed papers and U.S. federal grant reports

The memo cites a 2015 paper coauthored by Shi titled “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence” that described creating a “chimera,” or engineered virus, with the spike protein of a coronavirus from a Chinese horseshoe bat. 

Editors at Nature Medicine added a note in March 2020 cautioning that the article was “being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered.”

“There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus,” the disclaimer still reads. 

But the memo shows that the State Department indeed considered the paper relevant to the pandemic’s origins. 

The memo also describes lapses in safety monitoring at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan’s Chinese CDC lab. U.S. Embassy cables describing poor safety monitoring at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have also been reported by the Washington Post.

And it has also been verified that some hypotheses were indeed meant to serve as a decoy, according to another State Department cable released by U.S. Right to Know last year. 

A Nov. 2020 cable stated that the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 could be related to imported seafood products was meant to “deflect PRC responsibility.”

Other bits of information cited in the memo have not been verified. 

The memo describes online posts by a Chinese national with the username Wu Xiaohua who accused Wuhan’s scientists of “playing God,” making coronaviruses more dangerous through animal vectors in the lab, and not properly cremating virus-carrying lab animals. Wu even claimed that laboratory animals were sold as pets, and that laboratory eggs were eaten by lab staff. 

“Wu’s charges … are specific and have not been convincingly rebutted by WIV,” the memo states. 

The memo also raises concerns about Huang Yanlin, a former employee of the Wuhan Institute of Virology whose profile was scrubbed from its website, “fueling speculation of foul play,” it notes. 

“WIV has failed to convince the world of the whereabouts of its former employee Huang Yanlin, rumored to be Patient Zero,” it reads. “Huang herself has never appeared in public and has since ‘disappeared.’”

Further evidence of a clampdown at the Wuhan Institute of Virology surfaced in a State Department cable first reported by U.S. Right to Know last year. The cable stated that lab workers were instructed not to talk about COVID-19 in January 2020, according to a Guangzhou-based blogger’s social media post, before it was censored.

The memo also cites a controversial study by Indian researchers drawing a comparison between the SARS-CoV-2 genome and HIV that was withdrawn from a preprint server after other researchers said it had serious flaws

Chinese CDC

The memo also describes circumstantial evidence suggesting the possibility of an accident at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab located near the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market where most early COVID-19 cases are believed to have been clustered. 

The lab houses as many as 10,000 virus-carrying bats, it alleges, citing Chinese state media. 

The lab is a BSL-2 lab, lower than the BSL-4 lab required for the highest risk pathogens.

“The WCDC is a Level 2 virus safety facility which is low. The vast amount of experimental bats poses [a] serious safety issue,” it states. 

The lab’s interest in viruses that circulate in bats is corroborated by a Chinese documentary in which leading virologist Tian Junhua tells filmmakers that bat caves “became our main battlefield.”

The memo alleges Tian once described being “rained on” by bat excrement and quarantining for 14 days, and notes that 14 days is the same quarantine period first recommended for COVID-19 exposure.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the memo on March 24 through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department as part of an investigation into possible links between risky viral research and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

All of the documents about the origins of COVID-19 that USRTK has obtained by public records requests are available here while the full tranche of State Department documents can be found here.

Written by Emily Kopp