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 

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 

Celebrated virus hunter siphoned taxpayer funds for his private ‘Global Virome Project’

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A Lassa virus budding off a cell. (NIAID)

A former U.S. Agency for International Development official founded and worked for a controversial organization benefiting from USAID funds while he continued to receive six-figure paychecks from his USAID job, potentially running afoul of ethics laws, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. 

Emerging Pandemic Threats Division Director Dennis Carroll went on to lead the organization — an ambitious, expensive, and potentially dangerous endeavor called the Global Virome Project. Carroll is now the group’s chair.

USAID — a federal agency that typically provides foreign aid — funded a $210 million government program that Carroll designed and oversaw for 10 years called “PREDICT” that served as the “proof of concept” for the Global Virome Project.

Now the Global Virome Project is seeking at least $1.2 billion to collect more than 1 million viruses in wildlife, with the stated aim of forecasting where animals carry pathogens that could evolve to infect humans too. Carroll has pitched the Global Virome Project as the “beginning of the end of the pandemic era.”

Not all experts are convinced Carroll can make good on those promises. Others worry the fieldwork may pose its own pandemic risks

Although the Global Virome Project is controversial even within the field of virology, the idea gained credibility with Carroll’s help and his use of the imprimatur of USAID, the emails suggest. 

They indicate that Carroll’s work as USAID’s leader in viral surveillance and as the chair of the Global Virome Project overlapped for years.

Carroll organized calls and meetings on the project’s work with other co-founders, sought donations and helped refine fundraising pitches, pushed favorable messages in the press, and consulted on its application for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service — all while still working for USAID. 

Carroll was central to founding the Global Virome Project even when he still worked for the government in 2018. Carroll was featured in the Netflix documentary “Pandemic.”

In a December 2018 email from his USAID email address, for example, Carroll proposed a list of board members of the Global Virome Project, including himself, and looped in other project cofounders. U.S. Right to Know obtained the emails through the Freedom of Information Act and the California Public Records Act in an investigation of potentially dangerous viral research funded through taxpayer dollars.

A Global Virome Project board member said that the idea was “championed by the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats Division” in one August 2017 pitch.

Under Carroll’s helm, USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats Division spent at least $270,969 in funds related to “GVP,” the emails show.

“That’s troubling,” said Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, an ethics agency for executive branch employees. “Separately, his use of a USAID email address is troubling if GVP is not a government project.”

Then-USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats Division President Dennis Carroll pitches the Global Virome Project in Thailand in 2018. (Richard Nyberg/USAID)

As Global Virome Project supporters made their pitch in Bangkok and Beijing, emails show USAID partially paid for the trips.

Carroll told the media he founded the Global Virome Project after he left his job at USAID. 

But the emails show he started in-depth work on the Global Virome Project as early as March 2017, and received six-figure USAID paychecks in 2017, 2018 and 2019. For example, in 2019, USAID paid Carroll $166,500, the maximum allowed for a rank-and-file federal employee.

“The law is clear that officials cannot use government resources to benefit themselves or prospective employers,” said Kedric Payne, senior director of ethics with the Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog group. “If Carroll was involved in decisions benefitting GVP while he was at USAID, it is likely that he needed approval from the agency’s ethics officials. The public has a right to know if their public officials comply with conflict of interest laws.”

A USAID spokesperson said in a statement that Carroll never sought a waiver either from laws surrounding conflicts-of-interest while in a government job, or from laws regulating the revolving door.

“USAID does not have any record that Mr. Carroll sought clearance for any outside positions while he was still employed at USAID,” a spokesman said in an email. “USAID does not have any record that Mr. Carroll sought advice regarding whether a recusal was necessary or appropriate for any post-government employment negotiations in which he might have been engaging.”

Experts also raised concerns about Carroll appearing to leverage the prestige of his position at USAID to endorse the private organization he founded. 

“There’s numerous conflict of interest laws that should be investigated here to ensure that Carroll didn’t violate the laws on the books,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group.

Carroll did not respond to a request for comment or to a request for the Global Virome Project’s tax records. 

Global Virome Project Board Member Edward Rubin states that USAID “champions” the Global Virome Project in a fundraising pitch.

‘Which one did they prevent?’

A USAID spokesperson said that the group was first recognized as a nonprofit organization after Carroll left USAID. USAID has not provided the Global Virome Project with any further funding since it was formally incorporated, he said.

Still, some experts said that even if Carroll’s organization wasn’t formally recognized by the IRS as a nonprofit yet, his activities raise red flags.

“Even if you could find some loophole out of the criminal statute because GVP wasn’t technically a legal entity yet, this is a fundamental conflict of interest,” said Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Chief Ethics Counsel Virginia Canter.

The USAID spokesperson did not respond to other questions about how much money the Global Virome Project received before its formal incorporation or whether Carroll should have sought an ethics waiver for his simultaneous work at USAID and GVP.

Meanwhile, even some experts who lean toward the theory that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, first infected humans via two separate intermediate animal hosts, say the idea driving PREDICT and the Global Virome Project is far-fetched. 

“If I thought there was a kind of ‘viral smoke alarm’ I would invest everything imaginable in that, but this project doesn’t give us that, ok?” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and a former advisor to the State Department on health security. 

Deep knowledge about Zika and Nipah has still not led to proven vaccines against them, he said.

Osterholm said Carroll’s daring “Indiana Jones” image is not backed up by real payoffs for public health. 

“Show me one thing they’ve done that has made a difference, where they could even make a case that they supposedly prevented a pandemic. Which one did they prevent?” he said. “Did they find anything that helped us with this coronavirus?” 

Carroll has pitched the Global Virome Project as the “beginning of the end of the pandemic era.” But not all experts are persuaded. (USAID)

Connections in Wuhan

Global Virome Project cofounder, secretary and treasurer Peter Daszak ⁠— president of another USAID contractor called EcoHealth Alliance — has come under Congressional scrutiny because of his work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including on so-called “gain-of-function” work that makes novel coronaviruses more dangerous in the lab. Carroll’s division at USAID funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology through EcoHealth Alliance. 

Shi Zhengli, a top coronavirus researcher at the Wuhan lab, worked with Carroll’s PREDICT and was slated to work with the Global Virome Project. 

The emails demonstrate that there was significant correspondence between Carroll and Daszak about the Global Virome Project while Carroll was a USAID official and EcoHealth was receiving USAID funds. 

In one March 2019 email, Daszak suggests that lawyers flagged the overlap in Carroll’s role. 

“I realize this isn’t the exact language you wanted, but it’s safer for us at this sensitive point where we still receive USAID funding being [used] for GVP related activities,” Daszak wrote to Carroll. 

The details are redacted.

An email obtained through the Freedom of Information Act suggests lawyers flagged the overlap in Carroll’s roles.

Carroll pitches pricey virus collection plan with USAID funds

Carroll marshaled significant taxpayer funds to lay the groundwork for his pet project. 

USAID funded Global Virome Project collaborators’ international trips as they made their pitch to potential investors.

In February 2017, USAID funded the stipend of Eddy Rubin, a member of the Global Virome Project board of directors, while he traveled in Beijing to meet with scientific staff at the U.S. Embassy there about China’s role, the so-called China National Virome Project. 

Again in October 2018, USAID paid for three individuals to fly to Bangkok to pitch the Thailand Global Virome Project: EcoHealth Alliance fellow Alice Latinne, Metabiota, Inc. epidemiologist David McIver, and University of Missouri intellectual property expert Sam Halabi. The itineraries of Latinne and McIver included work for the Global Virome Project, but also included work for USAID’s PREDICT. But Halabi’s trip had no apparent relevance to USAID work.

China and Thailand were two of the five country partners that the Global Virome Project targeted in its first phase

In addition, a cost-benefit analysis of the Global Virome Project was commissioned by Carroll and undertaken with USAID funds in August 2018. The precise costs are unclear, but the endeavor may have involved several cross-country flights by University of Washington economist Dean Jamison, the emails indicate. 

And Cara Chrisman, a USAID official who worked under Carroll, was often looped in on logistical questions about the Global Virome Project. 

An internal USAID spreadsheet indicates Carroll’s division spent $270,969 on “GVP.”

Uncertain future

Critics of the Global Virome Project even include some virologists who are skeptical of the theory that posits research on novel coronaviruses in Wuhan could be related to SARS-CoV-2. 

University of Sydney evolutionary biologist and virologist Edward C. Holmes, University of Edinburgh virologist Andrew Rambaut and Scripps Research virologist Kristian G. Andersen wrote in Nature in 2018 that the Global Virome Project is unlikely to predict pandemics because animal viruses so rarely cause epidemics in humans. 

“Around 250 human viruses have been described, and only a small subset of these have caused major epidemics this century,” they wrote. “Advocates of prediction also argue that it will be possible to anticipate how likely a virus is to emerge in people on the basis of its sequence, and by using knowledge of how it interacts with cells (obtained, for instance, by studying the virus in human cell cultures). This is misguided.”

At the time, they pointed out that its cost would comprise roughly one fourth the entire budget for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the U.S. agency that funds most viral research. And that is not accounting for the speedy evolution of certain viruses, which could quickly make the data collected outdated, they wrote. 

More recently, Holmes again critiqued the idea of deep surveillance of viruses in wildlife in an editorial, even while underscoring the importance of regulating live animal markets. 

Carroll and Daszak have defended the steep price tag of the Global Virome Project by comparing its projected spend to the devastating costs of a pandemic. 

“Pandemics are estimated to cause an average of US $570 billion in economic damages per year to the global economy,” they wrote in 2018. “The Global Virome Project will cost U.S. $1.2 billion, which is less than 0.2 percent of this estimated loss.”

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

Zhengli Shi Edits to Widely-Cited EMI Commentary

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A new document shows Zhengli Shi’s edits to a draft of the Emerging Microbes & Infections commentary, “No credible evidence supporting the claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2.” Zhengli Shi is a leading Chinese virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Shi proposed three edits of note. First, she proposed changing the presentation of the number of nucleotides that differed between RaTG13, which was the closest relative of SARS-CoV-2 identified at that time, and SARS-CoV-2. The authors wrote this difference was “greater than 1000 nucleotides.”  Shi proposed deleting “1000” and replacing it with “1100” nucleotides. This edit appears to maximize the presentation of the difference between the two viruses.

Second, Shi proposed deleting a paragraph discussing the mouse-adapted SARS-CoV virus, MA15 (that had been used in Ralph Baric’s lab in collaboration with Shi), and how its serial passage had increased viral replication and lung pathology in mice. This appears to be an effort at distancing from the gain-of-function debate surrounding the research done together by Shi, Baric and the EcoHealth Alliance.

Third, Shi edited a statement on bats as natural reservoirs, and civets as intermediate hosts, of SARS-CoV.

Since the publication of the EM&I commentary, a bat coronavirus with greater similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13 has been identified in bats in Laos. Three of the viruses identified, called BANAL-52, BANAL-103 and BANAL-236, have receptor binding domains (RBDs) that can bind to human ACE2 with greater affinity, and can infect human cells more readily, than RaTG13.

The Zhengli Shi attachment had been referred to in emails between Shan-Lu Liu, Lishan Su, and editor Shan Lu. U.S. Right to Know obtained the attachment through a Ohio Public Records Act request.

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