There are many things we still do not know about the origins of this pandemic — including the central issue of whether it began with natural spillover from animals or some kind of laboratory incident. But we do know one thing now beyond debate: speculative “gain-of-function” experiments on mutant bat viruses were taking place in Wuhan laboratories.
This research, carried out in labs that did not have maximum level of biosafety, was increasing the infectivity of laboratory-created diseases by constructing chimeric coronaviruses — despite strong denial of such practices by the key Chinese scientists. And the bio-engineering was being funded by United States taxpayers — channelled through a charity run by a British scientist — despite similar denials from America’s most senior public health officials that they supported such science fiction activities in Chinese labs.
The details have been confirmed by the latest batch of documents emerging under US freedom of information rules — which unlike in Britain, actually assist attempts to break through walls of official obfuscation. The Intercept obtained 900 pages of documents detailing two research grants in 2014 and 2019 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to EcoHealth Alliance. This is the charity headed by Peter Daszak, the controversial Briton who led efforts to squash “conspiracy theories” about a possible lab incident after spending years hunting viruses with Shi Zhengli, the now-famous “Batwoman” expert at Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
Some of these grant details have emerged previously — but these documents include the original proposals along with project updates, so significantly flesh out what we knew. They highlight how US funding bodies outsourced risky gain-of-function research to China, even over a three-year period between 2014 and 2017 when it was banned in their own nation. They also show, with new clarity, the kind of work taking place in secretive Wuhan labs. These disclosures fuel the mystery over the pandemic origins, while also sparking fresh concerns over top scientists in both China and the West who sought to suppress inquiries into the lab leak hypothesis.
A $3.1m grant, according to the documents, was awarded to understand “the risk of bat coronavirus emergence” through screening thousands of samples collected from the nocturnal creatures. This included a chunk of funding worth $599,000 for WIV. Bear in mind that three months ago, Shi, director of its Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, angrily protested over the world “pouring filth on an innocent scientist” when emphatically refuting that they carried out gain-of-function work. “My lab has never conducted or co-operated in conducting GOF experiments that enhance the virulence of viruses” she told the New York Times.
According to NIH “the term gain-of-function research describes a type of research that modifies a biological agent so that it confers new or enhanced activity to that agent”. Analysis of these papers show US funds supported construction of new chimeric Sars-related coronaviruses, which combined a spike gene from one with genetic material from another — and then showed the resulting creation could infect human cells and mice engineered to display human-type receptors on their cells.
One new virus had increased pathogenicity over the original virus and three new viruses increased viral load in lung tissues up to ten thousandfold, which is most definitely “enhanced activity.” As scientists pointed out to me, these results demonstrated increased pathogenicity of SARSr-CoVs with different spike proteins in humanised mouse models. And similar construction work was proposed to be done with another type of deadly pathogen — the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, which first flared up in Jordan nine years ago after spilling over from camels and has since cropped up in 27 countries, causing 858 deaths.
So yet again it seems Shi — probably under intense pressure from the Communist regime — has been manipulating not just bat viruses but the truth over her lab’s activities. Just like when she claimed a database containing 22,000 virus sequences and samples was taken offline due to hacking in the pandemic when it disappeared on September 12, 2019 — several weeks before infections emerged in Wuhan and months before global attention turned on her lab. Or when the name of the most closely-related virus to Sars-CoV-2 — the strain of virus that causes Covid-19 — was changed in a key scientific paper, thus masking ties to three miners who died in 2012 from a strange respiratory condition while clearing out a copper mine in southern China.
Yet she is not the only key player in this drama telling porkies. Anthony Fauci, the US infectious diseases expert and presidential adviser, insisted earlier this year that his country “has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology”. His stance led to a furious clash in Congress with Senator Rand Paul, who gleefully tweeted after The Intercept published its article on the papers: “Surprise surprise – Fauci lied again. And I was right about his agency funding novel coronavirus research at Wuhan.”
Paul was backed by Richard Ebright, the bio-security expert and professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, who has long been a fierce critic of such work since he argues that the risks of creating new diseases in laboratories vastly outweigh any potential benefits. “The documents make it clear that assertions by Anthony Fauci and the NIH Director, Francis Collins that the NIH did not support gain-of-function research or potential pandemic pathogen enhancement at WIV are untruthful,” he said.
There are many fascinating nuggets in these papers such as discussion of isolating coronaviruses using “transformed bat cell lines” from nine different species. “We have used these for virus isolation, infection assays and receptor molecule gene cloning.” Monali Rahalkar, an Indian microbiologist, said it was clear after combing through the details how such collaborative research could lead to something such as Sars-Cov-2. “And these are just two projects,” she said. “There were other projects and additionally the ones going on in China sponsored by their government.”
Buried in the documents are two more intriguing details. First, the experimental work creating mutant chimeric coronaviruses was carried out at WIV’s biosafety level 2 lab and then the work analysing them in humanised mice performed at the biosafety level 3 Wuhan University Center for Animal Experiment, not at the new maximum level 4 WIV lab built with French assistance. The cluster of labs at the university hospital, incidentally, includes a breeding centre that created at least 1,000 types of genetically engineered animals from mice to monkeys. So this means the details in the papers accord with a previous statement by Shi that their coronavirus research is “conducted in BSL-2 or BSL-3 laboratories” — although a level 2 lab has, some say, barely higher safety standards than a dental clinic and certainly few safeguards against an lethal airborne virus.
Yet this is where the puzzle intensifies. For six months ago David Asher, who led State Department investigations into the origins, told a Washington seminar the first “known cluster that we’re aware of, of victims of what we believe to be Covid’ were three people who fell sick at a BSL 3 lab within a week of each other.
“There is a possibility it was influenza,” he said. “But I’m very doubtful that three people in highly protected circumstances in a level three laboratory working on coronaviruses would all get sick with influenza that put them in a hospital or in severe conditions all in the same week, and it didn’t have anything with the coronavirus. That’s highly hard to believe. From that point forward, it certainly seemed to have started to spread within their community.”
Second, while Daszak has been condemning supposed conspiracy theories and defending his friends in China with whom he has collected thousands of samples, his own charity was pointing out the major risk of accidental infection faced by researchers when collecting such specimens in a project he led. “Fieldwork involves the highest risk of exposure to SARS or other CoVs, while working in caves with high bat density overhead and the potential for fecal dust to be inhaled. There is also some risk of exposure to pathogens …while handling bats, civets, rodents or other animals, their blood samples or their excreta.”
It is, at last, largely accepted that there are two plausible theories behind this public health catastrophe, so perhaps these revelations have more political than scientific consequence. Even Peter Ben Embarek, the Danish food scientist who led the dismal World Health Organisation study trip to Wuhan earlier this year, recently admitted the possibility that a field incident sparked the pandemic was “a likely hypothesis”.
He told a documentary there might have been “human error” somewhere but this could not be admitted inside China’s repressive autocracy. “The whole system focuses a lot on being infallible, and everything must be perfect. Somebody could also wish to hide something. Who knows?” The engima has not been cracked but these are small steps forward in the search for the pandemic origins.