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Did virus hunters cover up a lab leak? The team was assembled to stop a pandemic — and then disappeared

Did the project even make sense?(STR/CNS/AFP via Getty Images)

Did the project even make sense?(STR/CNS/AFP via Getty Images)


and
April 22, 2022   7 mins

In August 2016, a group of public health experts, policymakers and donors met in the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Conference Center overlooking Lake Como. Their aim was ambitious: to agree on “bold global action” that would mark the “beginning of the end of the pandemic era”. In other words, they hoped to find which viruses might cause the next pandemic, and get a head start on developing vaccines and drugs.

Known as the Global Virome Project, the scheme was officially launched in February 2018. By 2019, it had appointed a board of directors and made the “transition to a legal and operational reality”, according to an email from its head. Yet when a pandemic did break out at the end of that year, instead of leaping into action the Global Virome Project fell silent. It made no announcements, issued no press releases, arranged no public events.

Today, its website is an online zombie. In the greatest pandemic in a century, caused by exactly the sort of novel emerging virus it was designed to predict and prevent, it lists just three publications on its website, one of which is a dead link and the others four and six-years-old. Its “in the news” page lists no article after April 2021. What happened?

Using embassy cables, emails released under freedom of information, and government reports, we have pieced together the history of this wide-ranging international collaborative project and how it vanished just when it was most needed.

The seeds of the project were sown between 2009 and 2019, when the US government funded a big push into virus hunting in wildlife in tropical regions through a programme called PREDICT. When this funding came to an end, the main players got together to seek private and charitable funding to continue the work. These included, from government, Dennis Carrol, director of the Emerging Pandemic Threats Division within the United States Agency for International Development; from academia, Jonna Mazet of the University of California at Davis, who had been director of the PREDICT project; from the non-profit world, Peter Daszak, head of the EcoHealth Alliance, who became treasurer of the new project; and from the private sector, Nathan Wolfe, founder of the DNA database firm Metabiota.

The first meeting of the GVP’s steering committee took place in Beijing in January 2017. George Gao, the incoming head of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was quick out of the blocks with China’s contribution to the GVP, overseeing the rapid creation of the China National Virome Project. It was formed so quickly that by August 2017 Eddy Rubin, chief scientific officer at Metabiota, wrote: “The project appears to be moving faster than expected with a China component already funded and poised to generate data”.

However, as the GVP was preparing to launch, some scientists had misgivings: did the project even make sense? As two Australian virologists told a reporter for the Atlantic, the work was “unlikely to be informative in predicting the next pandemic”. Spotting the one virus among millions that might cause a pandemic would make finding needles in haystacks look easy. “What you’re trying to predict is likely something that happens maybe once out of tens of billions of encounters, with one virus out of millions of potential viruses. You will lose your fight against the numbers,” said Jemma Geoghan and Ed Holmes.

Other virologists shared their doubts. “Making promises about disease prevention… that cannot be kept will only further undermine trust,” wrote Dr Holmes, in a joint article with Edinburgh University’s Andrew Rambaut and the Scripps Institute’s Kristian Andersen. “I still fail to see at this point how it’s going to better prepare the human race for the next infectious disease that jumps from animals to humans,” wrote Michael Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy.

Nonetheless, ignoring these awkward objections, the GVP team pressed ahead with the project. It was formally launched in February 2018, with an article in Science magazine, authored by Carrol, Daszak, Wolfe, Gao and Mazet with four others. China was poised to play the leading role. “Funding has been identified to support an initial administrative hub, and fieldwork is planned to begin in the first two countries, China and Thailand, during 2018,” the article declared.

In a cable from September 2017, Ping Chen, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases office in the US embassy in Beijing, had reported that the China part of the project was being funded by grants from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), China’s leading coronavirus virologist, was quoted in the cable as saying: “CAS has already allocated funding for GVP-related research”. Wang Zhengwu, of the Department of International Affairs at CAS, was further quoted as saying “CAS is working on a process and mechanism to support Chinese scientists with backing from the Ministry of Sciences and Technology and The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) for Global Virome Project type research”.

Sure enough in January 2018, Shi Zhengli received two research grants, one each from NSFC and CAS to study the risk of cross infection of humans by bat-borne SARS-like coronaviruses. It appears the Wuhan Institute had already been entrusted with the main work of the China National Virome Project. In April 2018, confirming the link between this work and the GVP, a US embassy cable noted that “The Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Shi Zhengli… is the forerunner to the Global Virome Project.”

Meanwhile, in March 2018, the EcoHealth Alliance, WIV and others had submitted a joint proposal to DARPA, the Pentagon’s research funding agency. It included a section in which the researchers detailed plans to introduce a genetic sequence called a furin cleavage site into novel SARS-like viruses to increase their ability to infect cells in the laboratory and make them easier to grow. This is the very sequence that has turned up in the virus causing Covid, and in no other SARS-like coronavirus.

The proposal, titled DEFUSE, was turned down by DARPA. Shortly after, however, a “Special Project” was initiated by the CAS with Shi Zhengli in charge for one of the subprojects. The scope largely corresponds and overlaps with the GVP and Project DEFUSE. The goal was to “change the passive response situation of emerging infectious diseases to active monitoring and early warning”, “explore and identify pathogens with potential risks of infecting humans, studying their ability to invade different host cells and their replication ability in different host cells”, and “analyse the key molecules affecting its cross-species infection and its pathogenic mechanism”. In November 2018, at a conference in Bangkok, Hongying Li, the coordinator for the China National Virome Project, showed a slide of the “GVP viral database model”. It included “virus isolation”, the technical term for growing live viruses in the lab.

Some have therefore speculated that the unfunded DEFUSE project could have continued with funding from the CAS. In a recent Vanity Fair article, the prominent Pasteur Institute virologist Simon Wain-Hobson was quoted as saying that “it is possible the WIV would have wanted to copy what it viewed as cutting-edge science”.

The output of the GVP was intended to be a global database of all viruses collected, available to the world. “I believe that our Chinese side can make our great contributions for the development of GVP database system and data portal by the support from China CDC and CAS,” George Gao noted in an email. But there was unease in the West about this. As a State Department cable put it: “Who will own the samples that are collected from many countries? Where will they be analysed? Will all the GVP data be freely available to the public?” Another US embassy cable noted: “Other countries… are skeptical on whether China could remain transparent as a “gatekeeper” for this information.” Eddy Rubin was more blunt: “There is a concern about data sharing if only China takes the lead.”

They were right to be concerned. By 17 July 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had built one of the world’s largest databases of bat and rodent viruses, holding more than 22,000 samples and data entries of pathogens. It has repeatedly refused to share this data with international scientists since the pandemic began. Some of those viruses were collected with funding from US taxpayer dollars, and some samples were collected from countries neighbouring China, such as Laos.

On 12 September 2019, this database was suddenly taken offline. The Institute has not published any details of the SARS-like viruses they were studying after 2016, claiming that people were trying to hack the database. This, of course, makes no sense: sharing data, as intended, makes hacking unnecessary.

Yet far from drawing back because of the data-sharing concerns, in November 2018, Dr Ping Chen of the US Embassy in Beijing sent an email to the National Institutes of Health in the United States detailing proposals for America to share the cost of China’s virus hunting projects. In the version obtained by Judicial Watch under Freedom of Information, most of the email has been redacted, as has most of an attached presentation from July 2019 by the Ecohealth Alliance entitled “Working Towards a China-led Virome project”. What is in these documents, prepared about a year before the pandemic broke out in the city with the most active contribution to the GVP, and caused by a virus of the kind being most actively studied by that project? It would be nice to know.

In a March 2019 article in the journal Biosafety and Health, Dr Gao drew attention to the extra risk of causing a pandemic by studying viruses in the laboratory: “genetic modification of pathogens, which may expand host range as well as increase transmission and virulence, may result in new risks for epidemics.” This was exactly what the Wuhan Institute of Virology was doing to the viruses it was collecting in the wild: working with full-length infectious clones, manipulating their spike genes, creating “chimera” hybrids and testing their infectiousness in human cells and humanised mice.

In August 2019, Dr Gao spoke at length on a podcast, saying that part of the GVP would involve altering viruses in the lab: “[In] GVP you might isolate some virus, you look at it and there is nothing to do with humans, however through adaptation, evolution, you might have some virus adapt to human beings, so as basic scientists you will do all these either in a lab or do the surveillance.”

For some reason, professional journalists have shown little appetite for investigating the GVP since the pandemic began, arguing that it was still just an idea, not yet in operation, which is true outside China. In a recent exchange on Twitter, for instance, Jon Cohen of Science magazine suggested that the GVP had not started as a data-collecting network before the pandemic hit. The independent data analyst Gilles Demaneuf responded that China forging ahead without an agreement about data sharing was a red flag that should call the existence of the GVP into question.

As for the China National Virome Project, almost nothing has been heard of it in the past two years, as if it never existed. The Global Virome Project has also largely evaporated. Both were designed to predict and prevent the next pandemic, a task at which plainly they failed: the research was a year and a half in the making and provided no benefit when the Covid pandemic began. That this work might instead have caused the pandemic is a possibility that must be investigated.


Matt Ridley is the co-author of Viral: the Search for the Origin of Covid 19 

mattwridley

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Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago

Excellent piece, thank you. Naturally, an hypothesis is just that, unless it’s tested and cannot be reproducibly falsified. So the “lab leak hypothesis” is one theory amongst several.
What’s concerned me for some time is not just that so many people seek to shut down investigation and even debate on this subject – it’s more that so many of those people have been involved with key players in the funding of gain of function work. Not, I am sure, that this would provoke any reticence to engage in open scientific inquiry. Clearly I’m a paranoid conspiracy nut (rather than a professional biologist of some 30 years’ standing)… though I’m beginning to learn that my fully-functioning bulls**t detector is at least as helpful as qualifications and experience in the current SNAFU.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

At the time of the time of the first lockdown this highly contagious virus had been abroad for at least 4 or 5 months and possibly longer. There was going to be no putting the genie back in the bottle and it was not particularly virulent.
Accordingly, I have wondered whether the response of the authority was, in some considerable part, based on at least a suspicion that the Chinese had inserted a furin cleavage site into SARS viruses and everyone was in a panic about how it might develop

Michael Richardson
Michael Richardson
2 years ago

Extending on that, my thought is that, initially, China ignored and then suppressed information about the new disease. But, at some point, someone joined up “outbreak of new coronavirus disease around Wuhan” and “WIV has worked on bat coronavirus/HIV chimeras” (see earlier papers from WIV). And though, h**y s**t, have we released an airborne HIV? At which point they panicked. By the time it was apparent that SARS-Cov-2 was not that lethal, it was too late to backtrack, and the most of the world had followed suit. The reset, as they say, is history.

Darrell Boone
Darrell Boone
1 year ago

“Not that lethal”??? The global mortality attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic was recently estimated to total over 18-million through Dec. 31, 2021. Likely by now it exceeds 20-million. See: https://www.thelancet.com/article/S0140-6736(21)02796-3/fulltext
That seems fairly “lethal” according to the standard meaning of this word.

Last edited 1 year ago by Darrell Boone
Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago

Amazing reporting. The NY Times or Guardian or Washington Post can’t manage to do put this tory together, but a small online outlet like Unherd scoops all of them. That’s why they’re hemorrhaging subscribers and you’re growing.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
2 years ago

This article leaves the impression that the Chinese cut out western scientists well before the pandemic start – but fails to mention the whole western coverup Lancet letter headed by Daszak that tried to gaslight the west that the source could not possibly be the WIV. Not proof, but enough smoke for me to believe it is more likely than not there was a lab leak and western scientists are complicit in it.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

“On 12 September 2019, this database was suddenly taken offline. The Institute has not published any details of the SARS-like viruses they were studying after 2016, claiming that people were trying to hack the database.”

It is all so tiresome.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Thank you for that brilliant description of what hopefully may turn out to be the greatest scandal of the century. Chinese ‘fingerprints’ appear to be everywhere, which is hardly surprising given their devious nature.
However that famous question, asked centuries ago by the Noble Roman, Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla, “Cui Bono”? has yet to be satisfactorily answered.
As the most reliable scientific commentator in the ‘known world’ I am certain that Matt Ridley will soon provide that answer.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

I think it has been quite comprehensively answered in robert f Kennedy’s recent book, The Real Anthony Fauci. Huge amounts of money controlled and disbursed by Fauci et al to promote virus and vaccine research by big pharma and others, over the last 30 years.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Thank you, I have yet to read that. Perhaps a naive question, but why has Fauci not been “clapped in irons”, prior to being executed in the traditional manner?

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Fauci is a leading member of “The Swamp” and knows where many “Dead Bodies” are buried and by whom. There has been a lot of information aboiut Fauci found in dribs and drabs including an apparent direct disobedience of a Presidential Order regarding payments to “The Bat Lady/The Wuhan Lab.”. It would seem that he is being protected by the American Press (and Others?)

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

A good question. I think it shows how powerful and well connected these people are.

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

If there is anyone’s fingerprints all over this it is Fauci and America. That is not to say China is not involved as they likely are, as are the Ukrainians. You don’t have over two dozen fully operational biolabs operating in a country without the country’s government knowing something about it.

And why aren’t big questions being asked urgently as to the exact involvement of the President of America’s son with these biolabs. That beggars belief when the world has been thrown into chaos and multigenerational debt due to what is highly likely to be a biolab leak.

The only people who still think these things are conspiracy theories are people who haven’t been paying attention. Thankfully more and more people are not blindly following whatever the media tells them to believe, and are starting to ask basic questions.

Paul LoSchiavo
Paul LoSchiavo
1 year ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

“Cui Bono”? After the most massive upward transfer of wealth in history facilitated by legislative fiat, that answer seems obvious. Whether this was a result of planning or typical opportunism by well-positioned corporate scavengers, remains to be learned. Perhaps a bit of both which does not bode well for humanity.

N T
N T
2 years ago

Until the natural selection hypothesis gets some actual, real-life evidence, the “duh” hypothesis is going to rule, despite the experts claiming otherwise.
Let me know when there is a real in-the-wild Covid-19 analog found in some non-human. Until then, the correct answer is “duh”.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
2 years ago

To my untrained ears this suggests that the recent/current? epidemic resulted from either accidental or deliberate manipulation and release of a deadly virus. I can imagine the Chinese wanting to hide/obscure the truth of both scenarios.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
2 years ago

“There’s been an outbreak of chocolatey goodness in Hershey, Pennsylvania”

Luke I
Luke I
2 years ago

Your investigation and analysis has been so grounded. If all your findings could be collated into a feature film, I reckon it could make real waves

Kieran Saxon
Kieran Saxon
2 years ago

We need to look seriously at reparations.

Kieran Saxon
Kieran Saxon
2 years ago

We need to look seriously at reparations.

Darrell Boone
Darrell Boone
1 year ago

This excellent article repeatedly makes mention of George Gao. The following 3 examples provides additional historical context about Gao:
First, after explaining that China’s government was caught and publicly/internationally embarrassed for trying to cover-up their first outbreak of a SARS virus during 2002 & 2003, PBS’s “FRONTLINE” investigative report described an important development in the aftermath of this debacle which heralded a significant reform that would detect all future SARS-like outbreaks so they can be “nipped in the bud”:  
NARRATOR [for “CHINA’S COVID SECRETS” – FRONTLINE: Season 39, Episode 12 – Aired Feb. 2, 2021]
Beijing set about making sure that SARS could not happen again. The following year it began creating what it has claimed is the largest online infectious diseases reporting system in the world, run from the Center for Disease Control, China’s CDC.
IAN LIPKIN, Center for Infection and Immunity, Columbia Univ.:
I helped them develop the national CDC. The CDC that I first visited was in disrepair. That’s completely changed.
And what they did was they created these various programs—there was a hundred talents, a thousand talents—so that people who had been trained in other parts of the world were recruited back to China to contribute to the establishment of new infrastructure for infectious disease surveillance.
NARRATOR:
One of those recruits was George Gao, a virologist at Oxford University. He became the head of the China CDC in 2017.
GEORGE GAO:
Let me tell you how we organize the disease control and public health in China: surveillance. We have the general centralized data center within China CDC. I will know within hours whether or not we have a outbreak, even in a small village.
NARRATOR:
By 2019, Gao was promising that the country’s new online surveillance system would be able to prevent another outbreak like SARS.
YANZHONG HUANG, Sr. Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations:
So they were indeed confident that they had the capacity to handle well a major disease outbreak should it happen, that they would be able to nip the crisis in the bud.
https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/chinas-covid-secrets/transcript/
In addition, “Spike” is a 2021 book by Jeremy Farrar – a British medical researcher and Director of the Wellcome Trust, a global foundation “which supports science to solve urgent health challenges”. Farrar was also intimately involved in the infamous telephone conference on Feb. 1, 2020 with Fauci, Collins and several virologist in which they debated an initial consensus that the virus responsible for the impending Covid-19 pandemic more than likely did NOT have a “natural origin” (i.e., it likely was a laboratory creation).
Farrar’s book selectively details his role in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. He begins “Spike” by describing a telephone call on December 30, 2019 from George Gao – the “head of the Chinese Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC) in Beijing” – an “old friend” of Farrar. The purpose of Gao’s call was to assure Farrar about the “cluster of cases of a new pneumonia from Wuhan in China”. Farrar wrote: “I remember him telling me that we wouldn’t need to worry because it wasn’t Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)…”  
According to Farrar, Gao was under pressure and likely lied to him, as later in the opening chapter of “Spike” Farrar wrote that there were several verified sources indicating the China CDC received notice from a Chinese genomics laboratory on Dec. 27, 2019 (3 days before Gao’s call) which confirmed this “new pneumonia” was indeed caused by a SARS virus.  
Furthermore, for his Dec. 28, 2020 article – “The Plague Year” – for the “New Yorker”, Lawrence Wright interviewed Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Redfield recounted several phone calls he had with his Chinese counterpart – George Gao – about the new pneumonia cases, including one on Jan. 3, 2020 in which Gao told him that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission [another lie]. Redfield described a disturbing call a few days later in which Gao started to cry and said: “I think we’re too late” [to keep the virus outbreak from spreading]. 
“Too late…”; INDEED!

Last edited 1 year ago by Darrell Boone