This article has been updated. Latest update: 15/6/2021
Pressure is mounting for a full, independent investigation into the origin of SARS-CoV-2.
That pressure is coming from scientists around the world and individual members of the US Congress. Numerous national governments and the European Union have also issued statements calling for a new investigation and the director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said he is ready to deploy experts for possible additional missions.
An international group of scientists – unofficially known as the ‘Paris Group’ – recently published three open letters calling for a fresh investigation, including one addressed to the WHO, and, in a major development, 18 scientists from the US, Canada, the UK, and Switzerland published a letter in the May 14 issue of Science magazine calling for more investigation to determine the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” the 18 scientists wrote.
On May 26, the US president Joe Biden called for a full investigation by US Intelligence into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Biden said: “I have now asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days.
“As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China. I have also asked that this effort include work by our national labs and other agencies of our government to augment the Intelligence Community’s efforts. And I have asked the Intelligence Community to keep Congress fully apprised of its work.”
Biden added: “Back in early 2020, when COVID-19 emerged, I called for the CDC to get access to China to learn about the virus so we could fight it more effectively. The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of Covid-19.”
He said the US would keep working with like-minded partners around the world “to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence”.
On June 13, the G7 leaders, meeting in Cornwall, England, called, in their end-of-summit communiqué, for “a timely, transparent, expert-led, and science-based WHO-convened Phase 2 Covid-19 Origins study including, as recommended by the experts’ report, in China”.
Jamie Metzl, who is a member of a WHO advisory committee on human genome editing, tweeted that he welcomed the G7 statement, but said it would only be meaningful if it led to a comprehensive investigation into what went wrong.
He added: “ … we can’t settle for anything less than a comprehensive investigation into pandemic origins w/ full access to all relevant records, samples, and personnel. China has no legitimate right to prevent this.”
Should Chinese authorities not allow a full #COVID19 investigation w/in this timeframe, we would need to launch an full, alternative investigation through other means, possibly OECD, G7, Quad, or a coalition of the willing. Scientists & other experts would play an important role.
— Jamie Metzl (@JamieMetzl) June 14, 2021
A bipartisan amendment put forward by Republican Senator Roger Marshall and Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand calling for “a comprehensive investigation to determine the origins of Covid–19” was passed by the US Senate on May 26.
Marshall said: “If China continues on its path of cover-up and obfuscation, the Marshall-Gillibrand amendment demands a full, transparent investigation to include the US and our allies and partners around the world.”
He added: “It’s outrageous that a comprehensive investigation has still not been carried out. If China continues on its path of cover-up, we must begin planning a full investigation, including with partners around the world.
“It would be utterly irresponsible to suffer through the worst pandemic in a century and not have the origins fully investigated. Our bipartisan amendment will deliver the message that the Chinese must show us the data and be transparent with the world – and if they don’t, we will fight to get to the bottom of this outbreak.”
Gillibrand said: “There must be a thorough and transparent investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic – obstruction is completely unacceptable. Our amendment makes clear that the US believes that the previous WHO investigation was flawed, that there must be accountability, and all potential origins of this virus, including a lab leak, must be investigated fully.”
The publication of more than 3,000 pages of emails obtained by BuzzFeed News via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit has prompted calls for new hearings about the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic and for the director of the National institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases (NIAID), Anthony Fauci, to reveal the unredacted versions of the newly released emails.
In the US, two House Republicans – Steve J. Scalise and Jam Comer – have written letters to the chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, James E. Clyburn, and the chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, Carolyn B. Maloney, stating that Fauci should testify before their committees.
Scalise, who is a member of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, tweeted: “Just sent a letter to Democrats demanding they call Fauci to testify before Congress. We now know his emails contain evidence on Covid’s origins and the Wuhan lab.”
Comer, who is a member of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Scalise wrote that the released emails “contain new evidence regarding the origins of Covid-19, including the possibility it leaked from a US taxpayer funded laboratory”.
The two Republicans added: “It is now imperative that Dr Fauci come before our committees to provide information related to the origins of the novel coronavirus as well as the US government’s role in funding research that may have contributed to the development of the novel coronavirus. The American people have a right to know what our government knew about the origins of the pandemic and when it was known.
“Therefore, we renew our request that you immediately convene hearings to examine the origins of Covid-19, the possibility that it leaked from a CCP-controlled laboratory, and any involvement of US taxpayer funds.
“Additionally, we request that you demand unredacted versions of all of Dr Fauci’s recently released emails.”
The Financial Times (FT) reports that Fauci has called on China to release the medical records of nine people “whose illnesses might provide vital clues into whether Covid-19 first emerged as the result of a lab leak”.
According to the FT, Fauci wants to see the medical records of the three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) who reportedly became sick in November 2019 and the six miners who fell ill after removing bat faeces from the Mojiang mine in China’s Yunnan province in 2012. The miners developed a severe pneumonia-like illness and three of them died.
The miners had a high fever, dry cough, sore limbs and, in some cases, headaches – all symptoms that are now associated with Covid-19.
“I would like to see the medical records of the three people who are reported to have got sick in 2019,” the FT reported Fauci as saying. “Did they really get sick, and if so, what did they get sick with?
“The same with the miners who got ill years ago … What do the medical records of those people say? Was there [a] virus in those people? What was it? It is entirely conceivable that the origins of Sars-Cov-2 was in that cave and either started spreading naturally or went through the lab.”
The FT said Fauci continued to believe SARS-CoV-2 was first transmitted to humans via animals, but thought the question warranted further investigation.
“I have always felt that the overwhelming likelihood – given the experience we have had with SARS, MERS, Ebola, HIV, bird flu, the swine flu pandemic of 2009 – was that the virus jumped species,” the FT reported Fauci as saying. “But we need to keep on investigating until a possibility is proven.”
During a Congressional hearing in the US on May 11, Senator Rand Paul questioned Fauci about US funding for gain-of-function research.
Fauci told Paul that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) “has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.
It’s known, however, that the NIH did fund the EcoHealth Alliance to surveil and understand the risks of the transmission to humans of SARS-related coronaviruses. That funding has now been withdrawn.
Fauci has said that the NIH cut off funding for the collaboration between the EcoHealth Alliance, which is based in New York, and researchers in Wuhan after the then US president Donald Trump told it to.
The EcoHealth Alliance is also sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
In 2017, the EcoHealth Alliance collaborated with the WIV and the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore on research that was funded by the NIH, NIAID, the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats programme (under the umbrella of the PREDICT project), and by funding sources in China.
The scientists published a paper about research done in bat caves. Researchers drew blood from the bats, or took nasal swabs or faecal samples. They identified 11 new viruses that they called SARS R (SARS-related viruses) in bats.
The authors said: “In this study, we confirmed the use of human ACE2 as receptor of two novel SARSr-CoVs by using chimeric viruses with the WIV1 backbone replaced with the S gene of the newly identified SARSr-CoVs.”
This has been taken as an admission by the researchers that they carried out recombination work with higher-binding spike proteins on various SARS-CoV-2-related viral scaffolds.
Paul (pictured above left) continues to insist that the NIH did fund research at the WIV (he says this is “incontrovertibly true”). He says Fauci is “parsing his words”, saying it was not for “juicing up these super viruses”.
The exchange between Paul and Fauci sparked debate about what is, and what is not, gain-of-function research.
Alina Chan, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, tweeted that the EcoHealth/WIV work did not fall under the 2014 moratorium definition of gain-of-function research. “Maybe it falls under some scientists’ definition of GOF, but not the moratorium’s,” she said.
On December 19, 2017, federal officials in the US ended the moratorium, but the director of the NIH, Francis S. Collins, said the research could only be done if a scientific panel decided that the benefits justified the risks.
The most well-known proponent of the zoonosis hypothesis, Kristian Andersen, jumped in on Chan’s Twitter thread to say that the EcoHealth/WIV work was clearly not gain-of-function, “no matter the definition”. The 2017 paper by Hu et al. was also clearly not about gain-of-function, Andersen said.
Richard Ebright says, however, that Chan is wrong to say that the EcoHealth/WIV work did not fall under the 2014 moratorium definition of gain-of-function research.
Francis Collins said on ‘Special Report’ on Fox News on May 14 that the NIH “never approved any grant that would have supported gain-of-function research on dangerous coronaviruses to see if they could be more transmissible or lethal for individuals in the human species”.
He added: “That was not something that we would have done … we never approved that kind of research.”
Ebright tweeted on May 15:
What the NIH Director won’t acknowledge–but which is demonstrably true–is that the NIH funded the construction, in Wuhan, of novel chimeric SARS-related coronaviruses able to infect human cells and laboratory animals.
— Richard H. Ebright (@R_H_Ebright) May 15, 2021
Ebright says the research met the definition for gain-of-function research of concern under the 2014 pause. It also, Ebright says, “met the definition for potential pandemic pathogen enhancement under the 2017 HHS Potential Pandemic Pathogens Control and Oversight (P3CO) Framework”.
Jamie Metzl said on Fox News on May 19: “What Anthony Fauci said is ‘We didn’t financially support gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab’. In government documents there’s a definition of what that is and so he’s technically correct. But if the question was ‘Did the United States support efforts to make viruses more able to infect human cells or humanised mice cells?’, the answer to that would have been yes.”
During the May 11 hearing Roger Marshall asked Fauci: “Do you think it’s possible that Covid-19 arose from a lab accident at a lab in Wuhan and should it be fully investigated?”
Fauci replied, “That possibility certainly exists, and I am totally in favour of full investigation of whether that could have happened.”
Marshall asked Fauci: “Is it possible Covid-19 is not naturally occurring?” Fauci replied: “Again, that is a possibility … you always need to open up and leave all possibilities, which is the reason why I and so many of my colleagues are very much in favor of what the WHO said, that they want to go back again and take another look in there and see what was going on in that lab.”
Fauci again insisted that the NIH and NIAID “did not fund gain-of-function research to be conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.
When asked by Laura Ingraham on Fox News, after the release of the emails by BuzzFeed News, whether there could be criminal culpability in Fauci’s actions Rand Paul said: “At the very least there is moral culpability.”
Paul said: “The emails paint a disturbing picture, a disturbing picture of Dr Fauci from the very beginning, worrying that he had been funding gain-of-function research and he knows it to this day, but hasn’t admitted it.”
Paul says that Fauci was clearly concerned back in February 2020 about gain-of-function research and whether it was being funded by the US.
One of the emails obtained by Buzzfeed News was sent by Fauci on February 1, 2020, to the principal deputy director of the NIAID, Hugh Auschincloss.
Fauci wrote to Auschincloss about a 2015 paper published in Nature magazine entitled ‘A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence’.
One of the paper’s authors was the director of the Centre for Infectious Diseases at the WIV, Shi Zhengli, and another was University of North Carolina researcher Ralph Baric. In the acknowledgements at the end of the paper it’s specified that the research was supported by grants from the NIAID and the National Institute of Aging of the NIH, by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and by USAID-EPT-PREDICT funding from the EcoHealth Alliance.
The researchers noted: “Experiments with the full-length and chimeric SHC014 recombinant viruses were initiated and performed before the GOF research funding pause and have since been reviewed and approved for continued study by the NIH.”
Paul points out that Fauci uses the words gain-of-function research in the subject line of his email to Auschincloss. “Two weeks ago in a committee hearing, he said they did not fund any gain-of-function research … but in his email, in the subject line, he says ‘gain-of-function research’. He was admitting it to his private underlings seven, eight, nine months ago,” Paul told Laura Ingraham.
Auschincloss replied to Fauci on February 1.
Fauci wrote in a paper entitled ‘Research on Highly Pathogenic H5N1 Influenza Virus: The Way Forward’, published in the journal of the American Society for Microbiology on October 9, 2012, that the benefits of experiments with contagious viruses outweighed the risks.
He wrote: “Putting aside the specter of bioterrorism for the moment, consider this hypothetical scenario: an important gain-of-function experiment involving a virus with serious pandemic potential is performed in a well-regulated, world-class laboratory by experienced investigators, but the information from the experiment is then used by another scientist who does not have the same training and facilities and is not subject to the same regulations.
“In an unlikely but conceivable turn of events, what if that scientist becomes infected with the virus, which leads to an outbreak and ultimately triggers a pandemic? Many ask reasonable questions: given the possibility of such a scenario – however remote – should the initial experiments have been performed and/or published in the first place, and what were the processes involved in this decision?”
Fauci continued: “Scientists working in this field might say – as indeed I have said – that the benefits of such experiments and the resulting knowledge outweigh the risks. It is more likely that a pandemic would occur in nature, and the need to stay ahead of such a threat is a primary reason for performing an experiment that might appear to be risky.”
He said it must be respected “that there are genuine and legitimate concerns about this type of research, both domestically and globally”.
Fauci added: “We cannot expect those who have these concerns to simply take us, the scientific community, at our word that the benefits of this work outweigh the risks, nor can we ignore their calls for greater transparency, their concerns about conflicts of interest, and their efforts to engage in a dialog about whether these experiments should have been performed in the first place. Those of us in the scientific community who believe in the merits of this work have the responsibility to address these concerns thoughtfully and respectfully.”
Judicial Watch announced on June 4 that it had obtained 280 pages of documents from the Department of Health and Human Services revealing that, from 2014 to 2019, NIAID gave the WIV $826,277 for bat coronavirus research.
The documents, some of which were redacted or withheld in their entirety, were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit seeking records of communications, contracts and agreements with the WIV (Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“The agency is only processing 300 pages records per month, which means it will take until the end of November for the records to be fully reviewed and released under FOIA,” Judicial Watch said.
The records include a chart of NIAID funding to the WIV sent on April 21, 2020, by NIAID’s Chase Crawford to Hugh Auchincloss and other NIAID officials.
“The agency funds directed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology between the years 2014– 2019 total $826,277,” Judicial Watch said. “All of the projects listed in the chart are titled “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.”
Included in the emails obtained by Judicial Watch is one sent on April 15, 2021, to Fauci and others by the principal deputy director of the NIH, Lawrence Tabak, in which Tabak provides details of a 10-year grant made to the EcoHealth Alliance for a project entitled ‘Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence’.
Tabak wrote: “The 3.7M dollar figure is over six years to all sites which include (several in) China, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar.
“We estimate that approximately $826,300 has been spent at this site [the WIV] since the inception of the grant. Yearly costs appear to be about 80K/year.”
On May 26, the Senate passed Rand Paul’s amendment prohibiting the NIH and other US federal agencies from funding gain-of-function research conducted in China.
The amendment defines gain-of-function research as “any research project that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity or transmissibility in mammals”.
This is the same definition the NIH used when implementing the funding moratorium on gain-of-function research from 2014 to 2017.
Paul said: “We don’t know whether the pandemic started in a lab in Wuhan or evolved naturally. While many still deny funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan, experts believe otherwise. The passage of my amendment ensures that this never happens in the future. No taxpayer money should have ever been used to fund gain-of-function research in Wuhan and now we permanently have put it to a stop.”
The amendment was co-sponsored by senators Ron Johnson, Tommy Tuberville, Roger Marshall, Mike Braun, and Thom Tillis.
Also on May 26, the US Senate passed legislation requiring the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to declassify information about the origins of Covid-19.
The Bill, spearheaded by senators Josh Hawley and Mike Braun, gives the ODNI 90 days to declassify “any and all information relating to potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origin of the coronavirus disease”.
On May 27, the Assistant Director of National Intelligence for Strategic Communications, Amanda Schoch, said: “The US Intelligence Community does not know exactly where, when, or how the Covid-19 virus was transmitted initially but has coalesced around two likely scenarios: either it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident.
“While two elements of the IC lean toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter – each with low or moderate confidence – the majority of elements within the IC do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.
“The IC continues to examine all available evidence, consider different perspectives, and aggressively collect and analyse new information to identify the virus’s origins.”
Andersen says evidence points to a natural origin
In a letter to the editor published in Nature Medicine on March 17, 2020, Andersen et al. said it was improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus. Andersen et al’s findings have been challenged, however.
Andersen says the letter published in the May 14 issue of Science magazine “suggests a false equivalence between the lab escape and natural origin scenarios”.
He commented: “The core message of the letter is that the origins of Covid-19 should be investigated, which I think we all agree on. The authors are correct that both hypotheses are possible, but current evidence points to a natural origin for SARS-CoV-2 …”
Andersen continues to assert that no credible evidence has been presented to support the lab leak hypothesis, which he says “remains grounded in speculation”.
He says that available scientific data, “including those derived from epidemiological, ecological, clinical, and genomic investigations”, are consistent with a natural emergence of a novel virus from a zoonotic reservoir, “as has been observed so many times in the past”.
Andersen now says he “staunchly supports” further evidence-based studies into the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In his opinion, the most effective way to do this would be “to continue to build on the work done by the WHO, while ensuring they have the necessary mandate and support”.
Andersen added: “If our main goal is to truly understand what led to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, such studies need to be collaborative and cannot consist of one-sided demands that are unlikely to be met.”
In an email sent in February 2020 to the president of the EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak, who has had a long-standing involvement in gain-of-function research projects in China, Andersen wrote: “The main crackpot theories going around at the moment relate to this virus being somehow engineered with intent and that is demonstrably not the case.”
He wrote that “ fringe theories” should be countered “strongly and in plain language (‘consistent with’ [natural evolution] is a favorite of mine when talking to scientists, but not when talking to the public –especially conspiracy theorists)”.
However, in one of the emails obtained by BuzzFeed News, Andersen told Anthony Fauci that SARS-CoV-2 had “unusual features”, some of which “potentially look engineered”.
Andersen said in reply to questions from writer Nicholson Baker, published on Medium by independent investigator Yuri Deigin: “In the days immediately following my email to Dr Fauci, additional data was released (or we became aware of it), including the full genome of RaTG13, a coronavirus from bats, which presented many (but not all) key features seen in SARS-CoV-2.
“Most importantly though, following up on our preliminary analyses, we did much more extensive investigations – both on RaTG13 and other coronavirus genomes – to compare genomic diversity more broadly across coronaviruses.”
Andersen says he and his colleagues looked carefully at all the literature from the WIV, investigated common virus backbones and molecular, cellular, and cloning techniques used at the WIV and the University of North Carolina, investigated sequencing data sets produced from the WIV and the EcoHealth Alliance, and performed k-mer-based and recombination analyses on SARS-CoV-2.
“Many of these analyses were completed in a matter of days and allowed us to reject our preliminary hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 might have been engineered,” Andersen said.
He added: “It is important to understand that to this day, nothing has been proven and we are dealing with scientific uncertainty, based on currently available data. As we stated in our Proximal Origin article, we cannot prove that SARS-CoV-2 has a natural origin and we cannot prove that its emergence was not the result of a lab leak.”
Andersen still favours the natural emergence hypothesis, however, and continues to assert that “while both scenarios are possible, they are not equally likely”.
On June 6, more than 5,000 of Anderson’s tweets, dating from before March 7, 2021, disappeared. He claimed his old tweets were auto deleted, but then deactivated his Twitter account altogether.
In another of the emails obtained by BuzzFeed News, Peter Daszak thanks Fauci for “publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for Covid-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.
Conflict of interest
Serious concerns were expressed about the makeup of the WHO team that went to Wuhan, and not least the presence of Daszak, who is considered to have a serious conflict of interest.
It was Daszak who drafted a statement from 27 health scientists that was published in The Lancet on February 19, 2020, and condemned as “conspiracy theories” suggestions that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.
Speaking about the WIV, Daszak told Nick Schifrin of PBS (The Public Broadcasting Service) on March 29: “There’s no evidence that the viruses that that lab was working with or even the genetic sequences were the progenitor, the ancestor of SARS-CoV-2.”
Daszak added: “When you visit the lab, when you talk to the management, it is an efficiently run lab. They do audits, safety checks.”
In his response to the letter in Science magazine, Daszak tweeted: “The letter’s comment that ‘there were no findings in clear support of either a natural spillover or a lab accident..’ ignores a wealth of data supporting a ‘natural spillover’ & a complete lack of data suggesting a lab accident …”
Referring to an early draft of the statement published in The Lancet, Daszak (pictured left) said in an email sent on February 6, 2020: “I’ve not seen the final version yet, but the draft version that we (and expert group that met last week) edited has the following sentence: ‘The initial views of the experts is [sic] that the available genomic data are consistent with natural evolution and that there is currently no evidence that the virus was engineered to spread more quickly among humans.’
“I think this is a bit too specific, because there are other conspiracy theories out there. Our current statment [sic] neatly refutes most of them by saying that ‘We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that 2019-nCoV does not have a natural origin.
“Scientific evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this virus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging diseases’.”
Daszak added: “Please note that this statement will not have EcoHealth Alliance logo on it and will not be identifiable as coming from any one organization or person, the idea is to have this as a community supporting our colleagues.”
The email from Daszak was obtained by the investigative research group ‘U.S. Right to Know’.
In another email obtained by ‘U.S. Right to Know’ Daszak tells Ralph Baric that they should not sign the statement condemning the lab-origin theory.
“I spoke with Linfa last night about the statement we sent round. He thinks, and I agree with him, that you, me and him should not sign this statement, so it has some distance from us and therefore doesn’t work in a counterproductive way,” Daszak wrote.
Daszak continued: ” I’ll send it round some other key people tonight. We’ll then put it out in a way that doesn’t link it back to our collaboration so we maximize an independent voice.”
Baric agreed with Daszak’s suggestion not to sign the statement, writing back: “Otherwise it looks self-serving and we lose impact.” Daszak did ultimately sign the statement, but he was not identified as its lead author or coordinator.
In an interview on December 9, 2019, with Vincent Racaniello, who runs the ‘This Week in Virology’ netcast, Daszak talks openly about manipulating coronaviruses in the lab: “Coronaviruses are pretty good … you can manipulate them in the lab pretty easily,” he said.
“Spike protein drives a lot of what happens with a coronavirus; zoonotic risk. So you can get the sequence; you can build the protein; and we work with Ralph Baric at UNC [The University of North Carolina] to do this. Insert into the backbone of another virus and do some work in the lab.”
Daszak said that researchers did surveillance of bats across southern China. “We have now found, after six or seven years of doing this, over a hundred new SARS-related coronaviruses, very close to SARS,” he told Racaniello.
“Some of them get into human cells in the lab, some of them can cause SARS disease in humanised mice models and are untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals and you can’t vaccinate against them with a vaccine …
“We’ve even found people with antibodies in Yunnan to SARS-related coronaviruses so there’s human exposure.”
Alina Chan (pictured left) and Matt Ridley wrote in an article published in the Wall Street Journal on January 15 that a spokesman for Daszak told them: “The Lancet letter was written during a time in which Chinese scientists were receiving death threats and the letter was intended as a showing of support for them as they were caught between important work trying to stop an outbreak and the crush of online harassment.”
However Chan and Ridley, who is a journalist, businessman, author, and member of the UK’s House of Lords, point out that Daszak wrote an opinion piece in June for The Guardian headlined “Ignore the conspiracy theories: scientists know Covid-19 wasn’t created in a lab”.
Daszak is also leading The Lancet Covid-19 commission’s task force, which was set up to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
ABC News in the US reported on June 14 that one of the signatories of the statement in The Lancet, Charles Calisher, who is a virologist at Colorado State University, has done an about-turn and now believes “there is too much coincidence” to ignore the lab leak hypothesis and that “it is more likely” that SARS-CoV-2 came out of a lab at the WIV.
In an article published in the Wall Street Journal on May 24, another of the statement’s signatories, Bernard Roizman, who is a virologist at the University of Chicago, is quoted as saying: “I’m convinced that what happened is that the virus was brought to a lab, they started to work with it … and some sloppy individual brought it out. They can’t admit they did something so stupid.”
Former CDC director speaks out
Former CDC director Robert Redfield (pictured below), speaking in a clip released by CNN on March 26, caused shock waves when he said he thought that SARS-CoV-2 most likely escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan.
“I have spent my life in virology. I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human and, at that moment in time, the virus that came to the human became one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity for human-to-human transmission,” Redfield told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta.
“Normally, when a pathogen goes from a zoonote to a human, it takes a while for it to figure out how to become more and more efficient in human-to-human transmission. I just don’t think this makes biological sense.”
Redfield emphasised that he was not implying any intentionality and was simply giving his opinion.
He added: “If I was to guess, this virus started transmitting somewhere in September, October in Wuhan. That’s my own view; it’s only opinion.
“I am of the point of view that I still think the most likely aetiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory; you know, escaped.”
It’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect a laboratory worker, Redfield said.
“ … I have coronavirus that I’m working on. Most of us in a lab are trying to grow virus; we try to help make it grow better and better and better and better and better and better so we can do experiments and figure out about it.”
Redfield told Katherine Eban, writing for Vanity Fair, that he had received death threats from fellow scientists after telling CNN that he believed Covid-19 had originated in a lab. “I was threatened and ostracised because I proposed another hypothesis,” Redfield told Eban. “I expected it from politicians. I didn’t expect it from science.”
WHO-China Study condemned as a ‘whitewash’
When the report of the ‘Joint WHO-China Study’ of the possible origins of SARS-CoV-2 came out on March 30 it was heavily criticised. It is widely considered to be biased to suit the wishes of the Chinese government.
The report’s main messages – that a lab origin is “extremely unlikely” and that the virus most likely spread naturally, either directly from an animal to humans or via an intermediate host – had already been pushed out in press conferences given by the WHO team.
Ridley and Chan tweeted the following on March 29:
WHO’s failure to properly investigate the origin of a lethal pandemic is shocking
Its failure to complain about the lack of transparency from China is even more shocking
Its willingness to rule out one plausible theory and champion a less plausible one is most shocking of all. https://t.co/PrTeGVzSAB
— Matt Ridley (@mattwridley) March 29, 2021
Ridley said in a radio interview: “We were expecting a whitewash and a whitewash is what we’ve got.
“We’ve got a report that, in 300 pages, dismisses, in one paragraph, as very unlikely the idea that the virus leaked out of a laboratory, but then spends twenty or thirty pages going into great detail about how 45,000 animals … poultry and wildlife and things have been tested in China, all found negative, yet nonetheless concludes that it’s very likely that one of them carried the virus to Wuhan.”
Jamie Metzl tweeted the following:
How could the @WHO/Chinese gov’t joint team possibly call the lab like hypothesis “extremely unlikely“ in their report when they didn’t even bother to look into it or ask the most basic questions?
— Jamie Metzl (@JamieMetzl) March 29, 2021
Metzl added: “By bending over backwards to validate the zoonotic jump hypothesis despite the clear absence of evidence and glibly discounting the lab leak hypothesis without meaningful consideration, the report shows why having the Beijing government co-investigate a possible lab leak and deadly cover up is like asking the Kremlin to co-investigate Chernobyl.”
He tweeted the following on June 14:
We later learned that the joint team vote over which hypotheses were more or less likely & worthy of investigation were made by a show of hands in front of CCP apparatchiks. Any Chinese scientist who voted that a lab incident origin was possible would have been at great risk.
— Jamie Metzl (@JamieMetzl) June 14, 2021
The director of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on March 30 that he did not believe that the WHO-China team’s assessment was extensive enough. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions,” he said.
“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.”
At the press conference on February 9 the head of the WHO team, Peter Ben Embarek, said the team’s findings suggested that the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a laboratory in Wuhan was “extremely unlikely”. A possible lab origin was not in the hypotheses that the team would suggest for future studies, Ben Embarek said.
He said he had spoken extensively with lab personnel in Wuhan about the lab-related hypotheses and they were the best ones “to dismiss any of these claims”.
On February 12, Tedros took a different line altogether and said that all hypotheses about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 remained on the table and required further study.
The governments of the US, Australia, Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom issued a statement saying they were voicing shared concerns that the WHO-China report was significantly delayed and the team lacked access to complete, original data and samples.
“Scientific missions like these should be able to do their work under conditions that produce independent and objective recommendations and findings,” the governments said.
“We share these concerns not only for the benefit of learning all we can about the origins of this pandemic, but also to lay a pathway to a timely, transparent, evidence-based process for the next phase of this study as well as for the next health crises.
“It is critical for independent experts to have full access to all pertinent human, animal, and environmental data, research, and personnel involved in the early stages of the outbreak relevant to determining how this pandemic emerged.”
The governments urged momentum for “expert-driven phase 2 studies”. Going forward, they said, “there must now be a renewed commitment by WHO and all member states to access, transparency, and timeliness”.
The European Union also issued a statement, saying that it regretted “the late start of the study, the delayed deployment of the experts and the limited availability of early samples and related data”, but considered the work carried out to date and the WHO-China report as a helpful first step.
“We are looking forward to further engagement with the secretariat and the experts on the content of the report as well as on the implementation of its recommendations,” the EU said.
As outlined in the report, further work would have to be pursued to understand the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and its introduction into the human population, the EU added.
“This will require further and timely access to all relevant locations and to all relevant human, animal and environmental data available, including data from the first identified Covid-19 cases and cases picked up by surveillance systems, as well as further serologic testing of blood samples,” it said.
“We request the WHO to continue the studies and present a clear timeline for the follow-up work, and we wish to be regularly briefed on plans for, and progress of, its next phases. We also request that the DG allocate the resources necessary to complete this work.
“The identification of the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus will require full and transparent cooperation by all WHO member states and a collaborative effort by scientists from various disciplines.”
India’s external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said on May 28 that the WHO-convened global study about the origin of Covid-19 was “an important first step”.
He added that the study “stressed the need for next phase studies” and also for “further data and studies to reach robust conclusions”.
The follow up of the WHO report and further studies deserved the understanding and cooperation of all, Bagchi added.
The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CNN on March 25. “We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it.”
At a press briefing on April 7 spokesman for the US Department of State Ned Price said the WHO-China report lacked crucial data, information, and access. “It represents a picture that is partial and, in our view, incomplete,” Price said.
The Department of State called on the WHO to re-evaluate the criteria and the terms of the study process, Price said.
Price said the Department of State urged the WHO to ensure that the second phase of the study commenced without further delay, including in China, “in a way that respects and adheres to principles of transparency and openness, is driven by experts, and is free from interference, including political interference”.
The US State Department said in a fact sheet about activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published on January 15, 2021, that it had obtained evidence showing that researchers at the institute became sick with flu-like symptoms in autumn 2019.
The WHO-China report states, however: “The three laboratories in Wuhan working with either CoVs diagnostics and/or CoVs isolation and vaccine development all had high quality biosafety level (BSL3 or 4) facilities that were well-managed, with a staff health monitoring programme with no reporting of Covid-19 compatible respiratory illness during the weeks/months prior to December 2019, and no serological evidence of infection in workers through SARS-CoV-2-specific serology-screening.”
The US State Department said in its fact sheet: “The US government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses.
“This raises questions about the credibility of WIV senior researcher Shi Zhengli’s public claim that there was ‘zero infection’ among the WIV’s staff and students of SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-related viruses.
“Accidental infections in labs have caused several previous virus outbreaks in China and elsewhere, including a 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing.”
Eleven people were infected in the Beijing outbreak, and one person died.
The State Department added: “Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
Shi Zhengli said on March 23 that the US government was incorrect in stating that the WIV engages in classified projects with the Chinese military.
She made the comment in response to Jamie Metzl during a seminar hosted by Rutgers University.
Metzl asked Shi Zhengli whether she had knowledge of all of the research that was being done by everyone at the WIV and all of the viruses in the full repository there.
He asked her whether, to her knowledge, the US government’s claims that classified military research was being carried out at the WIV were correct, and if so, did she have full awareness of, and access to, all aspects of this research.
Shi Zhengli replied: “From my knowledge, all our research work is open, is transparent. At the beginning of Covid-19, we heard the rumours that claimed that in our laboratory we have some project … with the army … but this is not correct.”
Metzl told the Daily Caller News Foundation (DCNF) after the seminar that Shi Zhengli’s credibility would be destroyed if the US government could prove that the WIV was indeed collaborating with the Chinese military.
He said that since the Chinese government’s assertion that Covid-19 did not leak from the WIV rested almost entirely on Shi Zhengli’s credibility, the lab leak hypothesis would come to be seen as the most credible hypothesis if the US government produced receipts.
Metzl told the DCNF: “If the Chinese military was doing secret animal pathogen research at or with the WIV and Chinese government/WIV officials were lying about this to the WHO, media, and world, the case for an accidental lab leak followed by a cover up would grow significantly stronger.”
Shi Zhengli said in an email to the MIT Technology Review that the 18 scientists’ call for her lab’s records to be made available was “definitely not acceptable”, and added: “Who can provide an evidence that does not exist?”
She wrote: “It’s really sad to read this ‘Letter’ written by these 18 prominent scientists.
“The hypothesis of a lab leaking is just based on the expertise of a lab which has long been working on bat coronaviruses which are phylogenetically related to SARS-CoV-2.
“This kind of claim will definitely damage the reputation and enthusiasm of scientists who are dedicated to work on the novel animal viruses which have potential spillover risk to human populations and eventually weaken the ability of humans to prevent the next pandemic.”
The WHO-China study was conducted in Wuhan from January 14 to February 10 this year. The joint international team comprised 17 Chinese members and 17 international experts from other countries, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations participated as an observer.
The authors of the 123-page report (plus annexes) state: “Direct zoonotic spillover is considered to be a possible-to-likely pathway; introduction through an intermediate host is considered to be a likely to very likely pathway; introduction through cold/food chain products is considered a possible pathway; introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway.”
While giving no credence to the lab origin hypothesis, the report’s authors do state: “Although rare, laboratory accidents do happen, and different laboratories around the world are working with bat CoVs.”
They also suggest that there should be “regular administrative and internal review of high-level biosafety laboratories worldwide” and say that any new evidence supplied about possible leaks should be followed up.
The report’s authors admit that no intermediate hosts have so far been implicated in the origin of Covid-19, but add that “a range of species can be infected by SARS-CoV-2 experimentally (for example, raccoon dogs, ferrets, rabbits, cats, golden Syrian hamsters, bats, macaques, marmosets and white-tailed deer) or by presumed or demonstrated exposure to humans with Covid-19 (for example, mink, gorillas, captive large felids, domesticated cats and dogs)”.
They recommend surveys for SARSr-CoVs in farmed wildlife or livestock “that have potential to be infected, including species bred for food such as ferret-badgers and civets, and those bred for fur such as mink and raccoon dogs in farms in China, in Southeast Asia, and in other regions”.
They say it remains possible that the virus entered Wuhan via frozen food imported from another area of China or even from overseas, but add: “There is no conclusive evidence for foodborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and the probability of a cold-chain contamination with the virus from a reservoir is very low.
“While there is some evidence for possible reintroduction of SARS-CoV-2 through handling of imported contaminated frozen products in China since the initial pandemic wave, this would be extraordinary in 2019 where the virus was not widely circulating.”
In an interview with Lesley Stahl for ‘60 Minutes’ on CBS News Jamie Metzl said: “The WHO inquiry was far from comprehensive, because, as it has done since the beginning of the outbreak, the Chinese government withheld information.
“I wouldn’t really call what’s happened now an investigation. It’s essentially a highly chaperoned, highly curated study tour … Everybody around the world is imagining this is some kind of full investigation. It’s not. This group of experts only saw what the Chinese government wanted them to see.”
Metzl (pictured left) says that while the WHO team were at the WIV they didn’t demand access to the records and samples and key personnel.
“It was agreed first that China would have veto power over who even got to be on the mission,” Metzl said. “On top of that, the WHO agreed that, in most instances, China would do the primary investigation and then just share its findings with these international experts, so these international experts weren’t allowed to do their own primary investigation.”
Metzl tweeted on March 29:
I want to be 100% clear re my views: I strongly support @WHO & @DrTedros but vehemently oppose the @Peterfoodsafety cttee/Chinese gov’t joint team bending over backwards to validate the zoonosis theory while not even bothering to examine the highly credible lab leak hypothesis.
— Jamie Metzl (@JamieMetzl) March 29, 2021
In his remarks to WHO member states on March 30 Tedros said that the WHO-China report was a very important beginning, but it was not the end.
“We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do, he said.
“Finding the origin of a virus takes time and we owe it to the world to find the source so we can collectively take steps to reduce the risk of this happening again. No single research trip can provide all the answers.”
Tedros noted that the WHO-China report presented a comprehensive review of available data, suggesting that there was unrecognised transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in December 2019, and possibly earlier.
“The team reports that the first detected case had symptom onset on the 8th of December 2019. But to understand the earliest cases, scientists would benefit from full access to data including biological samples from at least September 2019,” he said.
“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data. I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”
Tedros said he welcomed the recommendations for further studies to understand the earliest human cases and clusters, to trace the animals sold at markets in and around Wuhan, and to better understand the range of potential animal hosts and intermediaries.
“The role of animal markets is still unclear,” he said. “The team has confirmed that there was widespread contamination with SARS-CoV-2 in the Huanan market in Wuhan, but could not determine the source of this contamination.
“I welcome the recommendations for further research, including a full analysis of the trade in animals and products in markets across Wuhan, particularly those linked to early human cases.”
Tedros said he concurred with the team’s conclusion that farmers, suppliers, and their contacts would need to be interviewed.
“The team also addressed the possibility that the virus was introduced to humans through the food chain. Further study will be important to identify what role farmed wild animals may have played in introducing the virus to markets in Wuhan and beyond,” he added.
Metzl tweeted on March 31 that the international team saw its task as finding a zoonotic source of animal transition in the wild, not seeking the actual source of the pandemic. “There’s a big difference,” Metzl said. “They set out to prove one hypothesis, not fairly examine all of them.”
One path to a full investigation would be to revise the current terms of reference to allow for an unrestricted forensic investigation, Metzl says. “We could also try for a new World Health Assembly resolution or UN mandate,” he added. “China will try to block these, but our starting point must be what’s required.”
David Relman told Nick Schifrin that the WHO-China report relied too much on summary judgments by Chinese scientists. “We can’t simply dismiss one idea as very unlikely and hold another as very likely when, in both cases, we have no direct evidence, Relman said.
Relman said he would call the report “somewhat superficial, skewed, and incomplete”.
Relman wrote an opinion piece for the journal of the National Academy of Sciences in the US last November, in which he said: “A more complete understanding of the origins of Covid-19 clearly serves the interests of every person in every country on this planet.
“It will limit further recriminations and diminish the likelihood of conflict; it will lead to more effective responses to this pandemic, as well as efforts to anticipate and prevent the next one. It will also advance our discussions about risky science. And it will do something else: Delineating Covid-19’s origin story will help elucidate the nature of our very precarious coexistence within the biosphere.”
Relman said that efforts to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and of Covid-19, had become “mired in politics, poorly supported assumptions and assertions, and incomplete information”.
Scientists call for a new investigation
The scientists who published the letter in Science magazine include Ralph Baric, Jesse D. Bloom from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in the US, Alina Chan, David A. Relman, who is a medicine and microbiology professor at Stanford University, and Marc Lipsitch from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
“Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable,” the scientists said. “Knowing how Covid-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.”
Jamie Metzl tweeted:
If #RalphBaric, the US scientist with the greatest knowledge of chimeric coronaviruses & the strongest working relationship with the #Wuhan lab thinks a lab incident #pandemic origin is possible, how could anyone legitimately claim otherwise? @Baric_Lab https://t.co/ShyGjKPZHr
— Jamie Metzl (@JamieMetzl) May 13, 2021
The 18 scientists say they agree with the WHO director-general, the US, 13 other countries, and the European Union, “that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve”.
They wrote: “A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest.
“Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts.”
The scientists note that, although there were no findings in clear support of either a natural spillover or a lab accident, the WHO-China team, whose report was released on March 30, assessed a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host as likely to very likely and a laboratory incident as extremely unlikely.
“The two theories were not given balanced consideration,” the scientists wrote. “Only four of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident.
“Notably, WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus commented that the report’s consideration of evidence supporting a laboratory accident was insufficient and offered to provide additional resources to fully evaluate the possibility.”
The scientists added: “In this time of unfortunate anti-Asian sentiment in some countries, we note that at the beginning of the pandemic, it was Chinese doctors, scientists, journalists, and citizens who shared with the world crucial information about the spread of the virus – often at great personal cost.
“We should show the same determination in promoting a dispassionate science-based discourse on this difficult but important issue.”
Bloom tweeted: “… this is not a debate between two teams, but a shared effort to find the truth so as to best leverage science to mitigate all potential causes of pandemics.”
One of the so-signatories of the letter to Science magazine, Pamela Bjorkman, now says she should perhaps have not signed it.
In a letter published on the website of the ‘This Week in Virology’ netcast, she writes about her motivation for adding her name: “I thought the letter would have the effect of prompting more funding for searching for natural viruses in animal reservoirs, which I personally have always assumed represent the origin of SARS-CoV-2 infections in humans.”
She adds: “Perhaps naively, I did not anticipate that the letter would be used to promote the lab origin hypothesis. Looking back on the wording of the letter, however, I now think that I should have realized this would happen and should have been more proactive – either not signed the letter at all or else requested more wording changes to make my position clear.”
An international group of 26 scientists published an open letter on March 4 calling for a “full and unrestricted international forensic investigation into the origins of Covid-19”.
They wrote: “As scientists, social scientists, and science communicators who have been independently and collectively looking into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, we believe it essential that all hypotheses about the origins of the pandemic be thoroughly examined and full access to all necessary resources be provided without regard to political or other sensitivities.”
The scientists say the WHO investigation in China was “opaque and restrictive” and its scientific validity was greatly compromised.
The WHO team, they say, did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation into all the relevant SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses.
In a further comment, Colin Butler, who is an honorary professor of public health at the Australian National University in Canberra, said: “This report is based on outdated scientific knowledge. It could have been written in 2003, when SARS occurred. Since then, techniques to manipulate the genetics of both laboratory animals (e.g. “humanised mice”) and viruses have evolved enormously.
“The rate of this technological evolution has far outpaced accompanying developments in ethics and transparency, meaning that an accidental leak from a laboratory of a novel pathogen with genuine global pandemic potential has never been as high.
“The failure of the report’s authors to understand these twin issues is of deep concern, analogous to the innocence of researchers into nuclear fission from a more innocent age.”
Günter Theißen, who is a professor of genetics at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, said the report provided a shocking example of how empirical science should not be done. “The authors take one scenario, the natural zoonose hypothesis, for granted – the working group was asked ‘to identify the zoonotic source of the virus’, as if this were the only possible scenario – and they do everything to corroborate their view.
“Alternative hypotheses, such as a lab accident, are dismissed as conspiracy theories, or considered being extremely unlikely.”
The report’s authors maintain that all available data support a zoonose, “which ignores numerous published evidence saying otherwise”, Theißen says. “This is not only arrogant, it is against everything we have learned from 17th century Francis Bacon, 20th century Karl Popper to contemporary epistemologists and science theorists as to how empirical research should be done.”
As long as the hypothesis that humans have helped to generate SARS-CoV-2, or to straddle the barrier from animals to humans at the onset of Covid-19, is not falsified, it should stand as one reasonable scientific hypothesis beside others, Theißen says.
“Considering only ‘politically correct‘ theories about the origin of SARS-CoV-2, especially a natural zoonose, as reasonable, but all others as conspiracy theories, is not only bad science. It is easily a recipe for the next disaster.”
Rossana Segreto, who works in the department of microbiology at the University of Innsbruck in Austria said: “If the molecular sequence data suggests that SARS-CoV-2’s supposed zoonotic jump most likely happened between mid-November and early December 2019, as the report asserts, this time frame would be too short to explain the perfect human adaptation of SARS-CoV-2, detected from its first appearance.
“The combination of low rate of evolution in the early phase of transmission, high adaptation for human infection and transmission from the earliest strains, as well as the human and mouse peptide mimicry, is more consistent with a laboratory origin – possibly connected to the use of humanised mice as animal model – than a natural one.”
Indian researcher Monali C. Rahalkar said: “The report supports the possibilities of direct zoonosis or through intermediate hosts though there is no support, as all the tested animals tested negative.”
Rahalkar says there has been no genetic or serological evidence for SARS-CoV-2 in a wide range of domestic and wild animals tested to date.
The WHO-China report fails to include details of the RaTG13 sample, she says. “This was collected from a mine in Mojiang, and there is no reference to this mine in the report.”
It would have been crucial for the WHO team to visit and resample from the Mojiang mine, Rahalkar says.
In November 2020, WIV declared that they had eight more SARS-like coronavirus samples from the same site, collected between 2012 and 2015, Rahalkar points out, but, to date, neither the sequences of these samples nor their IDs, with the location, are available in public databases or papers.
The authors of the WHO-China report talk about BSL3 and BSL4 facilities being used for coronavirus research, whereas Shi Zhengli told Science magazine that the scientists used BSL2 and BSL3 facilities for coronavirus research, Rahalkar also points out.
Nikolai Petrovsky from Flinders University in Australia said: “It remains vitally important that we understand how SARS-CoV-2 virus from the very first known human infections was so exquisitely well adapted to not only infect but also to transmit between humans, a feature not typical of other zoonotic virus spillovers to humans at their origin.
“This report does nothing to address this key and unique feature of SARS-CoV-2 and how this came about.”
There remains a need for further intensive scientific investigation into all potential sources of the virus, “to provide answers to critical questions that this team does not appear for political reasons comfortable to tackle”, Petrovsky says.
One of the letter’s signatories, Richard Ebright, who is a microbiologist working at Rutgers University in the US, told Rowan Jacobsen, writing for Boston Magazine in September last year: “For the substantial subset of virologists who perform gain-of-function research avoiding restrictions on research funding, avoiding implementation of appropriate biosafety standards, and avoiding implementation of appropriate research oversight are powerful motivators.”
Jacobsen wrote: “Antonio Regalado, biomedicine editor of MIT Technology Review, put it more bluntly. If it turned out Covid-19 came from a lab, he tweeted, ‘it would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom’.”
In their open letter, the scientists say that, while the “collaborative” process of discovery mandated by the WHO in May 2020 was meant to enable a full examination of the origins of the pandemic, structural limitations built into the mission to Wuhan made it “all but impossible” for the mission to realise this aspiration.
Half of the joint team was made up of Chinese citizens whose scientific independence might be limited, the scientists point out.
International members of the joint team had to rely on information the Chinese authorities chose to share with them, and any joint team report had to be approved by both the Chinese and international members of the team, they add.
They note, for example, that international members of the joint team, “by their own admission”, often relied on verbal assurances given to them by their Chinese counterparts rather than independent investigation, particularly regarding the possibility of a laboratory- or research-related accident.
They also note that the selection process of international experts on the team did not adequately screen for conflicts of interest and that the skills represented in the team were purely focused on public health and zoonosis to the detriment of forensic skills suitable for investigating a laboratory- or research-related accident.
Also, the investigation’s terms of reference were significantly limited, the 26 scientists say. They stipulated, for instance, that most of the field work had to be conducted by the Chinese side with the results simply communicated to the international members of the joint team for review and discussion, in a format chosen by the Chinese side.
The 26 scientists say in their letter that, based on their analysis, “and as confirmed by the global study convened by the WHO and Chinese authorities”, there is as yet no evidence demonstrating a fully natural origin of SARS-CoV-2.
“The zoonosis hypothesis, largely based on patterns of previous zoonosis events, is only one of a number of possible SARS-CoV-2 origins, alongside the research-related accident hypothesis,” the scientists wrote.
The scientists say it must be made clear that any findings of the joint committee, while potentially useful to a limited extent, represent neither the official position of the WHO nor the result of an unrestricted, independent investigation.
They lay out in detail the core problems that they say undermined the investigation along with the way they consider a full and unrestricted investigation should be organised.
A group of 24 scientists, social scientists, and science communicators, who include the signatories of the open letter published on March 4, published a second open letter on April 7 calling for a new inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic that would include biosafety and biosecurity experts, biodata analysts, and experienced forensic investigators.
“Calling for a full investigation into the origins of the pandemic by the best available means is not intended to point fingers at any one country,” the letter’s signatories said.
“Its purpose is to leave no stone unturned in seeking to understand how this catastrophe began so we can prioritise efforts to address our greatest shortcomings for the benefit of all people and all nations.”
The letter’s authors say that, well over a year after the initial outbreak, critical records and biological samples that could provide essential insights into the pandemic’s origins remain inaccessible.
“This withholding of key resources that could and should have been made available undermined the credibility of the joint study team work,” they wrote.
The letter’s signatories say they fully support the statement made by Tedros on March 30 “that all origin hypotheses must still be examined, including the possibility of a lab-related incident, that China must be more forthright in sharing essential data and biological samples, and that the WHO is prepared to send additional missions and experts to China in order to thoroughly examine all origin hypotheses”.
They say the principles articulated by the WHO director-general and the statements made by 14 countries and the EU will require a renewed commitment by the WHO and all member states “to a full and unrestricted forensic and scientific investigation based on access, transparency, and timeliness”.
The letter’s authors – who hail from from France, Spain, the UK, Germany, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, India, and Japan – say this “essential goal” must be realised in at least one of three possible concrete steps.
They are calling for a revision of the existing terms of reference agreed by the WHO and China.
The revised terms should replace the veto power by any government over the composition of the team of international experts and there should be a provision requiring final decisions regarding the make-up of the international expert group to be made by the WHO executive board, the group says.
The international team should incorporate a wider skill set, including biosafety and biosecurity experts, biodata analysts, and experienced forensic investigators, they add.
The transparent selection of the team of experts must be guaranteed and there must be a more robust process for dealing with possible conflicts of interest, the group says.
“Such a process should prevent any conflict of interest involving prior professional association with laboratories and institutions relevant to the investigation,” the letter’s signatories wrote.
There should be an official mandate allowing international experts to request full or significant access to all sites, records, and samples of interest, and to interview relevant people without the presence of government authorities and with the assistance of translators provided by the WHO, the group adds.
“If these revisions cannot be agreed upon and implemented in the very near term, a second option would be for interested governments to propose a new resolution at the May 2021 World Health Assembly,” the letter’s signatories wrote.
They say a new resolution should call for the following:
- an unrestricted international forensic and scientific investigation into the origins of the pandemic, fully examining all Covid-19 origin hypotheses, with full access to all records, samples, and personnel relevant to the investigation irrespective of location;
- the timely and comprehensive sharing of raw data relevant to the emergence of Covid-19 within the framework of Open Science and the FAIR principles; and
- improved national and international regulatory oversight of laboratories doing high-risk virology research, with specific emphasis on “gain-of -function research of concern”.
If it proves impossible for the terms of reference to be quickly revised or for a new and sufficient World Health Assembly resolution to be passed in the coming session, the best remaining alternative would be for governments seeking a full and credible examination into the origins of the pandemic to come together to develop a new and independent process, with China’s cooperation if possible, but without it if not, the group says.
The group says this process should outline what a full and unrestricted investigation of all origin hypotheses would entail, draw on the combined knowledge of government agencies and global experts to examine all the hypotheses to the fullest possible extent, and pool the knowledge and intelligence of cooperating governments in a collaborative effort to probe essential questions.
A secure whistleblower system should be established that allows scientists and others in China and other countries to share relevant information without fear of retribution, the group adds.
Also, transparent public hearings should be held that are designed to examine all hypotheses “in the most data-driven and responsible manner possible”, the letter’s signatories say.
The letter’s signatories point to numerous incorrect or contradictory statements made in Annex D7 of the WHO-China report.
They say that the deleted WIV database is wrongly described as an “Excel spreadsheet that had been on the website for 10 years” when it is “a 61.5MB MySQL database that had been released only a few years ago”. This database represents only one of multiple WIV databases that have been taken offline, the letter’s signatories say.
“Annex D7 states that the database was taken offline after being attacked by hackers,” the group wrote. “On another occasion Prof. Shi Zhengli explicitly stated that the database was attacked by hackers during the pandemic and then taken offline.
“This is in contradiction with the fact that the database was taken offline on September 12, 2019, before the official start of the pandemic.”
The letter’s authors also point to the statement in Annex D7 that “none of [the viruses from the mine] has higher similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than the RaTG13 has”.
They wrote: “It is actually not possible to make such an assertion when the 7896 clade viruses are also very similar to SARS-CoV-2 based on their RdRp, but have still not been fully published more than a year after the start of the pandemic (only the short RdRp sections have been published).”
They add that, in Annex D7, the WIV director Yuan Zhiming categorically refutes any possibility of a laboratory leak of SARS-CoV-2. “Dr Yuan Zhiming had nevertheless repeatedly denounced structural issues with many labs in China before the pandemic,” they wrote.
The letter’s authors point out that the few visits detailed in the report’s annexes only cover some of the institutions in Wuhan with P2 and P3 labs that were known to be involved in BatCoV research.
“A proper investigation should first clearly identify and then cover all the labs in Wuhan that were actively working on BatCoVs in 2019 without exception, and also the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products (next door to the WIV), which may have been involved in a BatCoV vaccine development programme,” they wrote.
They add: “Annex D7 provides neither the nature nor the details of research involving bat coronaviruses in Wuhan laboratories in 2019 – including but not limited to possible BatCoV vaccine development programmes, pathogenicity studies involving animal experiments, usage of passaging, gain-of-function and genetic manipulation techniques – which should be one of the very first steps towards rationally identifying some of the main risk factors in a lab-related accident scenario.”
The WHO-China report does not specify the number of people tested for antibodies (IgG) within the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other laboratories in Wuhan where research on bat coronaviruses was being carried out.
“From the results (all negative) we can only infer that a small fraction of the 590 WIV staff and students were actually tested,” the open letter signatories say.
“Indeed with the reported prevailing background antibodies (IgG) positive rate of around 4% in urban Wuhan around April 2020, the probability of no positive antibodies test (IgG+) amongst any reasonable number of potentially directly exposed staff and students becomes quickly extremely small, and is effectively null for the full population of 590,” they add.
“A proper review of tests should instead encompass all staff (including maintenance staff), all students, and all construction and temporary workers on site at the WIV, the WIPB, and at the other Wuhan P3 labs of interest, plus all sample collection staff (some of whom may not work at labs).”
In the arguments against the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a laboratory made in Annex D7 of the WHO-China report, it is stated that there is “no serological evidence of infection in workers through SARS-CoV-2-specific serology-screening”.
It is also stated that WIV staff had to report any symptoms every day after the outbreak of Covid-19 began.
“Serum samples were preserved annually for laboratory staff,” the report states. There was extra testing during the Covid-19 outbreak, according to the laboratory director Yuang Zhiming, the report adds.
“There had been no reports of unusual diseases, none diagnosed, and all staff tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies,” it states.
Ben Embarek told Science magazine on February 14 this year that he was told that the serum from the staff of the WIV was retrospectively tested. “They tested samples from early 2019 and from 2020,” Ben Embarek said.
On July 15, 2020, Shi Zhengli told Science magazine in an emailed answer to the question “Is it possible that someone associated with the institute became infected in some other way, for instance while collecting, sampling, or handling bats?” that such a possibility did not exist.
Zhengli said: “Recently we tested the sera from all staff and students in the lab and nobody is infected by either bat SARSr-CoV or SARS-CoV-2. To date, there is ‘zero infection’ of all staff and students in our institute.”
Gilles Demaneuf, who is who is an engineer and data scientists based in New Zealand, and a member of the independent DRASTIC of investigators, says it would be extremely unlikely that there were no positives when WIV staff were tested in March 2020.
“Hence, the statement that nobody at the WIV tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 is very likely untrue and the WIV should provide case histories of the employees/students that did test positive,” he said.
“With near absolute certainty some employees or students of the WIV had been infected with SARS-CoV-2 by March 2020.”
Demaneuf says the situation is worse when one considers the four labs mentioned by Ben Embarek.
“The total staff and student population around these labs must be larger, by a few hundreds of individuals, than the WIV population,” Demaneuf said. “Any claim that nobody tested positive nor was infected in these four labs is mathematically strictly impossible, not to say absurd.”
Demaneuf suggests that either a very small number of people at the VIW were tested, which would make the testing totally irrelevant, or a larger number of people were tested and lies are being told about the results. “Necessarily quite a few of those tested would have been positive; it’s a mathematical certitude,” he said.
“It was stated in a Chinese research paper that the background antibody seropositivity level (IgG+) was about 4.4% for urban Wuhan in April 2020 and this is in line with other seropositivity estimates for Wuhan.”
The joint study team used different evidentiary standards for the four origin theories it considered, the open letter’s authors say.
“At this stage there is still no direct evidence for either pathway nor any verified data or evidence sufficient to rule any one out, while historical evidence amply supports both,” they wrote.
“In particular, a primary conclusion of the report, that SARS-CoV-2 was most probably introduced into the human population through an intermediate host, is not supported by the negative results of all the 80,000 tested samples of wildlife, livestock (35 species), and poultry. That pathway remains entirely theoretical, which at the very least shows the necessity to remain open to other pathways.”
The group says that the final process used by the joint study team for assessing the likelihood of the lab pathway – “essentially a show of hands by the joint study team members based on an extremely superficial review” – failed to reach some most basic standards of credible analysis and assessment.
Demaneuf, says that every word of the WHO-China report had to be validated by China. It is a joint report, Demaneuf says, and “nothing can be printed without joint agreement”.
Demaneuf points out that, in Chinese, the report is called the China–WHO joint team report, with the emphasis on China, whereas in English it is the WHO–China report. “China would not tolerate calling it the WHO-China report in Chinese,” Demaneuf said.
He says the report is based on studies conducted exclusively by local scientists, “who too often flatly refused to provide the underlying granular data or to consider possible improvements”.
He added: “Secondly, it was painfully negotiated with the local half of the team, which was never in a position to assert its scientific independence being subjected to a very strict State Council gag-order.”
The team’s evaluation of a possible lab-related accident was limited to a short, guided tour of a few labs and to a few complaisant conversations held there, Demaneuf says. “As a result, a true investigation into the possible SARS-CoV-2 origins is now needed more than ever,” he added.
At his press conference on April 8, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said the purpose of the two “so-called open letters” was “obviously to mount pressure on the WHO and the joint mission”.
Zhao Lijian said: “These signatories can deceive no one as to whether their letters are meant to make a true proposal for scientific and professional origin-tracing or target a specific country with presumption of guilt.”
He said the Chinese side had provided “an abundance of manpower and material support” to the joint mission.
“We fully respect and have made every effort to meet the requests independently put forward by the mission as to the places they would like to see,” he added. “China’s openness and transparency is well commended by the mission.”
Zhao Lijian said the origin-tracing study was indeed affected by political factors, but that did not come from China, but from the United States and some other countries, “who are bent on politicising the origin-tracing issue in an attempt to disrupt China’s cooperation with WHO and discredit China”.
Jamie Metzl, who is one of the letters’ signatories, tweeted the following:
Rather than addressing the substantive issues raised in our open letter on #COVID19 origins, the Chinese foreign ministry has chosen to attack me personally, accuse our experts group of smearing #China, & yet again obfuscate & deflect. Truly unfortunate. https://t.co/6hQ2SkAsHX
— Jamie Metzl (@JamieMetzl) April 8, 2021
On April 30, 26 scientists published a third open letter – written to the WHO and the members of its executive board – that lays out specific recommendations for a full investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Among other things, it asks for details about specific projects involving the sampling and isolation of, and lab experiments on, bat coronaviruses. The signatories point specifically to “key databases of pathogens, samples and isolates”, coronavirus sequences, and documents that they consider should be made available.
Access to the databases is essential, the scientists say “as they contain data about viruses not yet published, and some of these viruses may be closely related to SARS-CoV-2”.
The scientists, most of whom were signatories to the open letters published on March 4 and April 7, recommend that the stated objective of a new investigation should be “to conduct a full scientific and forensic investigation into all possible origins of Covid-19, be it zoonotic or not”.
They say that such a reformulation of the investigation’s objective “would ensure compliance with the scientific method of deriving the conclusion from data and facts, not the reverse”.
The scientists say that the investigation’s methods and protocols should include the following:
- allocating proper time and efforts to examining all hypotheses without any a priori assumptions;
- ensuring that all assumptions and key steps in the analysis are supported by factual data;
- ensuring that the team of scientists and specialists are able to undertake their studies at key meetings and visits without any “unnecessary presence of host government non-scientific personnel”; and
- ensuring that mission members can conduct interviews, as needed, confidentially and/or anonymously, and with the assistance of translators appointed by the WHO if necessary.
Investigators should have guaranteed access to required raw data (relevant records, samples, project applications, project reports, personnel information, field trip information, relevant emails, laboratory notebooks, etc.) “and not solely semi-aggregated data or summaries”.
The documents the scientists say investigators should have access to include those about US research projects “whose goal is to strengthen global capacity for detection of viruses with pandemic potential” and documents about research projects in China investigating various coronaviruses.
Documents related to the following projects should be made available, the scientists say:
- The July 2019 tender issued by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, which related to the isolation of new viral pathogens, standardising their preservation, and establishing a shared database;
- a research project initiated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2018 to study several viruses and develop vaccines; and
- the China Virome Project (the China National Global Virome Initiative), which aims to identify unknown viruses from wildlife and is part of the Global Virome Project.
The scientists note that “all the coronaviruses most closely related to SARS-CoV-2” come from the Mojiang mine.
“Some scientists who went sampling at the mine had their samples confiscated while investigative journalists have been systematically turned away,” they wrote. “Can Chinese authorities offer unfettered access to the mine to international scientists for the required continued sampling effort?”
The scientists also note that the Chinese authorities have asserted difficulties sharing human health data with the international members of the WHO-China joint team because of strict domestic privacy laws.
“However, informed consent can normally be waived when de-identified data is used, as was done, for instance, in this recent Chinese publication involving 35,040 Wuhan citizens tested for Covid-19,” they wrote.
“Why was such a waiver not available when requests for very similar data were made by the joint-mission team members? Can this type of waiver be made now?”
The scientists again question the statement by Shi Zhengli and Yuan Zhiming that all staff at the WIV tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in March 2020.
This, the scientists say, is statistically unlikely (“roughly less than one chance in a billion”).
“Even if only 85 people were tested, the chance of no positive test would still be less than 4%,” the scientists say. “How can this contradiction be explained? Can Chinese authorities make available the anonymised raw data of these tests and the test samples for further examination?”
The scientists add: “Because the first phase of the joint study process focused primarily on examining the zoonosis hypothesis, commensurate efforts should now be expended in the next phase of the study examining the possibility of a lab-related incident.”
US lawmakers step up the pressure
In the US, three House Republicans wrote a ten-page letter to Peter Daszak grilling him about the EHA’s relationship with the WIV.
The letter was signed by the Republican leader of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, Cathy McMorris Rodgers; the Republican leader of the Subcommittee on Health, Brett Guthrie; and the Republican leader of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, H. Morgan Griffith.
Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans are demanding “a thorough and independent investigation be done in order to learn more about how the pandemic started”.
In their letter to Daszak, which is dated April 16, McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith pose 34 questions and ask for numerous documents including those relating to the EcoHealth Alliance’s collaboration with the WIV, the safety of WIV research facilities, and the EHA’s federal research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They ask for the information they request to be submitted to the Energy and Commerce Committee by May 17, 2021.
“We believe through its research activities, collaborations, and EHA’s relationship with the WIV as a federal award subrecipient, that EHA has information and documents that will provide insight into the WIV’s bat coronavirus information and pathways for further research in this area,” McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith state.
“We are interested in EHA’s knowledge of and access to the WIV’s virus samples, genomic sequences, and research afforded to EHA as a NIH federal award recipient who established a sub-recipient relationship with the WIV for grants …”
The letter’s signatories note that the NIH suspended a grant to the EHA in July 2020 until certain conditions were met regarding its work with the WIV. “However,” the committee Republicans add, “it appears EHA has not cooperated with the NIH since the grant is still shown to be suspended.”
The documents requested by McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith include a list of all the coronaviruses that the WIV laboratories were working with in 2019 related to NIH award number R01AI110964 and all financial conflict of interest disclosures, and disclosures of financial foreign support or foreign components, prepared for the NIH by the EHA for that NIH award.
The three ask: “Was the WIV lab work funded by EHA carried out at BSL-2, BSL-3 or BSL-4 level? If WIV work was carried out at various BSLs, please explain what type of work was conducted at each of the different BSLs.”
They also ask: “What does EHA know about research involving bat coronaviruses in the WIV laboratories in 2019, including but not limited to: possible bat coronavirus vaccine development; pathogenicity studies involving animal experiments; usage of passaging; Dual-Use Research of Concern; nucleotide synthesis; mutagenesis; genetic manipulation and gain of function techniques?”
In a further question, they say: “Does EHA have any virus samples or sequences related to the bats or pneumonia-like illness that sickened six miners in the Mojiang mine in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province, killing three, after their work removing bat faeces?
“If so, please provide the location and identification information for the samples and/or sequences.”
McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith ask numerous questions about RaTG13, including “Does EHA have any reason to know if RaTG13 was ever used in research at WIV, including gain of function studies?” and they ask whether the EHA has any other sequences or samples that were collected from the Yunnan bat caves in 2012.
They ask whether the EHA has the WIV genome that corroborates their renaming of RaBtCoV/4991 to RaTG13, and whether the alliance has the genome or genetic sequences of the eight other related coronaviruses found in the same mine (the 7896 clade) that can be seen in slides shown by Shi Zhengli in webinars.
The letter’s signatories say they are also interested in the EHA’s knowledge of, and access to, “a password-protected virus database for which external access ended on September 12, 2019.”
They add: “The database is administered by the WIV’s researcher Dr. Shi Zhengli, with whom you and your team have had professional and financial ties since at least 2003.
“The database is estimated to contain 500 coronaviruses identified by EHA, and at least 100 unpublished sequences of bat beta coronaviruses that are relevant to the investigation of the SARS-CoV-2 origin.
“We anticipate that EHA and the WIV share access to samples and virus sequences based on the terms of the NIH grant and based in part on a recent interview discussing the EHA and WIV joint effort to capture 10,000 bats, draw and test their blood, and create a catalogue of all of the viruses, including 50 new coronaviruses.”
McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith also say they are interested in learning about what the EHA knows about a Chinese national security review team finding in 2019 that the WIV did not meet national standards in five categories “and when or if those standards were met before 2020”.
They added: “EHA officials have repeatedly stated that they do not believe the pandemic was caused by a lab leak and have solicited support for others to advance that position publicly,” the letter’s signatories wrote.
“However, there is substantial and increasing support from the international scientific community and public health experts, including from the World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros, for further investigation into Covid origins, including the possibility of a lab leak.
“Since EHA is confident that a lab leak is not the cause, we expect you to welcome the opportunity to share any and all information, documents, and expertise you have related to bat coronavirus research at the WIV.”
On March 18, McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith wrote to Francis Collins, requesting “information, assistance, and needed-leadership” from the NIH “to advance an independent, scientific investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic”.
The NIH, the three Republicans say, “is in a unique position to investigate the possibility that the pandemic stemmed from a laboratory accident or leak, especially regarding the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.
McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith note that, of the $13.7 million in federal awards that the NIH authorised for the EcoHealth Alliance, 17 projects sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) had provided more than $7.9 million in federal awards for research of viral emergence from bats in Southeast Asia.
“It is imperative to determine not only where SARS-CoV-2 originated, but also how and if NIH’s funding and research to projects at the WIV could have contributed to SARS CoV-2,” they wrote.
The three Republicans note that an assessment from a classified US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report included the possibility that SARS CoV-2 could have emerged accidentally from a laboratory in Wuhan as a result of unsafe laboratory practices.
“The DIA report cited US government and Chinese researchers who found ‘about 33 percent of the original 41 identified cases did not have direct exposure’ to the market,” McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith wrote.
“That, along with what is known of the WIV’s work in past few years, raised reasonable suspicion that the pandemic may have been caused by a lab error, not a wet market.”
The Republicans also note that a WHO inspector on the recent mission to Wuhan said: “We know not all of those first 174 early Covid-19 cases visited the market, including the man diagnosed in December 2019 with the earliest onset date.”
They asked Collins to appoint an NIH working group “representing an appropriate diversity of scientific disciplines” to collect data and information related to Covid-19 origins (including the WIV), and that the NIH working group coordinate and consult with foreign scientific agencies involved in similar work.
At a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health on April 28 Rodgers asked Collins whether he believed that it was in the public interest to have a comprehensive scientific investigation into the pandemic origins.
“Do you agree with the director general of the World Health Organisation that further investigation into Covid origins is needed, including reviewing possible links to the potential laboratory leak,” McMorris Rodgers asked.
Collins said he did believe that an investigation following on from the original WHO investigation was needed.
He added “You may have seen the Wall Street Journal report just yesterday indicating that there is a serious effort now within the US government between the State Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture, and five other federal agencies to put forward to WHO what we believe ought to be the components of such a follow-up investigation.”
Collins said that a follow-up investigation “should be science based, should be looking at evidence, should be rigorous, should try to get answers to the questions that the first investigation was not able to derive.”
In a letter dated May 11, McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith wrote to the director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Kimberly S. Budil, requesting a classified briefing about a report that was produced in May 2020 about the origin of SARS-CoV-2.
It has been reported that the laboratory’s intelligence unit, ‘Z Division’, issued a classified report concluding that the lab-origin theory about SARS-CoV-2 was plausible and worthy of further investigation.
McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith wrote: “The Sinclair Broadcast Group (SBG) recently reported that a classified study of the origin of SARS-CoV-2 conducted a year ago by scientists at the Z Division had concluded that the novel coronavirus at the heart of the current pandemic may have originated in a laboratory in China.
“According to SBG, the Z Division report assessed that both the lab-origin theory and the zoonotic theory were plausible and warranted further investigation. A LLNL spokesperson confirmed the existence of the report to SBG.”
The letter includes a request that David J. Rakestraw, a senior science adviser who formerly directed LLNL’s biodefence programmes and has been coordinating the lab’s technical response to Covid-19, be included in the briefing.
McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith ask that Budil respond to their request by May 25, 2021.
In a report published on May 19 Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said “significant circumstantial evidence raises serious concerns that the Covid-19 outbreak may have been a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology”. They said they wanted the Intelligence Community to provide details of its reporting about collaboration between the WIV and the Chinese military.
The US government “may have funded or collaborated” in gain-of-function research at the Wuhan laboratory,” the committee Republicans wrote in the unclassified interim report entitled ‘Covid-19 and the Wuhan Institute of Virology’.
“To prevent or quickly mitigate future pandemics, it’s crucial for health experts and the U.S. Government to understand how the Covid-19 virus originated,” the committee Republicans wrote.
“International efforts to discover the true source of the virus, however, have been stymied by a lack of cooperation from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”
There are clear signs, the committee members said, “that US government agencies and academic institutions may have funded or collaborated in gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab”.
They added: At least some of this research was published even after the US government had paused these kinds of studies in the United States due to ethical concerns over their biowarfare applicability and their potential to accidentally unleash a pandemic.
“To protect American citizens from future pandemics, the US government must place more pressure on China to allow full, credible investigations of the source of the Covid-19 pandemic and to allow probes of the likelihood that it resulted from a lab leak.
“The US government must also provide a full accounting of any American cooperation with the Wuhan lab’s coronavirus research, including the support of these projects through US government funds.”
The Republicans say there is little circumstantial evidence to support the PRC’s claim that Covid-19 was a natural occurrence, with SARS-CoV-2 having jumped from some other species to humans.
“For example, Chinese authorities have failed to identify the original species that allegedly spread the virus to humans, which is critical to their zoonotic transfer theory,” they said.
The House committee members say the evidence that the Covid-19 outbreak may have begun with a leak from the WIV includes the following:
- China’s history of research lab leaks resulting in infections;
- warnings from US diplomats in China as early as 2017 that the Wuhan lab was conducting dangerous research on coronaviruses without following necessary safety protocols, risking the accidental outbreak of a pandemic;
- gain-of -function research being conducted at the Wuhan lab that made coronaviruses more infectious in humans;
- several researchers at Wuhan lab being ill with Covid-19-like symptoms in autumn 2019;
- the involvement in the Wuhan lab of the Chinese military, “which has a documented biological weapons programme”, and
- “multiple indications of attempts by Beijing to cover up the true circumstances of the Covid-19 outbreak”.
The committee members added: “Given the Chinese government’s documented biological weapons programme, it is difficult to understand why the US government permitted collaborative research at the WIV, which had a known Chinese military presence.”
In a separate development, Democratic senator Robert Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican Senator Jim Risch introduced a bipartisan Bill in the Senate that calls for a report on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic that includes “a detailed account of information known to the United States government regarding the WIV and associated facilities, including research activities on coronaviruses and gain-of-function research, any reported illnesses of persons associated with the laboratory with symptoms consistent with Covid-19 and the ultimate diagnosis, and a timeline of research relevant to coronaviruses”.
The Bill has completed its committee stage, but has not yet been voted on by the full Senate.
Menendez and Risch say the report, which would be submitted to the appropriate Congress committees, should also include an overview of US engagement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with respect to coronaviruses that includes a “detailed accounting of United States engagement with the WIV and similar labs in the PRC specific to coronaviruses”, including a detailed accounting of research and funding sponsored by the US government.
There should also be an assessment of “any additional scrutiny of United States government funding to support gain-of-function research in the PRC after the moratorium on such funding was lifted in 2017” and whether US government funding was used to support gain-of-function research in China during the moratorium on gain-of-function research from 2014 to 2017, the Bill states.
The Bill says there should be an assessment of the most likely origin of SARS-CoV-2, including a detailed review of all information the US possesses that it has identified as potentially relevant to the source or origin of SARS-CoV-2, “including zoonotic transmission and spillover, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), or other sources of origin, transmission, or spillover, based on the information the United States government has to date”.
The Bill says the US government should identify the leading credible theories about the aetiology of SARS-CoV-2 and indicate the steps it has taken to validate those theories.
The government should also indicate any variance in assessment or dissent among or between US intelligence agencies, executive agencies, and executive offices about the most likely source or origin of SARS-CoV-2, and the basis for such variance or dissent, the Bill states.
The Bill also says the US government should describe all steps it has taken to identify and investigate the source of SARS-CoV-2, including a timeline of such efforts and a detailed description of the data that the US and the WHO have requested and have access to in order to determine the origin of SARS-CoV-2.
There should also be an account of efforts by the PRC “to cooperate with, impede, or obstruct” any inquiry or investigation to determine the source and transmission of SARS-CoV-2, including into a possible lab leak, or, by the PRC or the Chinese Communist Party, including by national and local governmental and health entities, “to create or spread misinformation or disinformation” regarding the source and transmission of SARS-CoV-2.
The Bill states that “it is critical to understand the origins of the Covid–19 pandemic so the United States can better prepare, prevent, and respond to pandemic health threats in the future”.
It adds: “Congress shares the concerns expressed by the United States government and 13 other foreign governments that the international team of experts dispatched to the People’s Republic of China by the World Health Organisation … to study the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was ‘significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples’.”
In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Josh Rogin wrote: “Determining the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus should have nothing to do with politics. It is a forensic question, one that requires thorough investigation of all possible theories, and one that should encompass both the scenario that the virus jumped from animals to humans in nature as well as one related to human error in a Wuhan lab.
“But a fatally flawed investigation by the World Health Organisation and Chinese officials and experts only muddies the waters, and it places the WHO further at odds with the US government and the Biden administration.”
Working behind the scenes
The deepest digging into the origin of SARS-CoV-2 has been done by the DRASTIC team of investigators, which is made up of scientists, journalists, and other independent researchers who investigate anomalies in the narratives about SARS-CoV-2, collect and present evidence, and put forward questions and hypotheses.
One of the issues raised by the DRASTIC team is the fact that a database containing unpublished information about the sequencing of samples collected by researchers from the WIV on trips to an abandoned copper mine in Yunnan has been taken offline.
“The WIV’s wild animal virus database and its password-protected section containing unpublished virus sequences are no longer available publicly, and even the pages describing it have now been taken offline,” the DRASTIC team said.
“Can WIV clarify what happened to the samples collected from the Mojiang miners between 2012 and 2019 and whether they are still available for independent analysis? the team ask in a petition they launched in the form of an open letter to the WHO team in which they beseeched the scientists on the team “to conduct the investigations with transparency, impartiality, and bravery without bowing to any pressure or national interest”.
They asked: “Did WIV culture any virus from the Tongguan mineshaft pneumonia cases in animals or cell lines? If so, were the sequences used as ‘backbones’ for creating other viruses?”
There has been much discussion – and speculation – about a bat coronavirus that was reportedly discovered in a faecal sample collected in the abandoned mine in Yunnan in 2013.
The virus was initially referred to as RaBtCoV/4991, but later, when its whole genome was sequenced, it was renamed RaTG13. The genomic sequence of RaTG13 is reported to be 96% identical to that of SARS-CoV-2.
Shi Zhengli says that RaTG13 is the same sample as the one referred to as RaBtCoV/4991 in a scientific paper published by researchers from the WIV in 2016.
She says RaTG13 was never cultured in her laboratory and insists that SARS-CoV-2 did not originate there.
The most recent DRASTIC discoveries include three theses unearthed by @TheSeeker268 and analysed by @franciscodeasis. The theses, by Ning Wang, Yu Ping, and Lei-Ping Zeng (all researchers at the WIV), were all supervised by Shi Zhengli. They provide information about how samples from the Mojiang mine were dealt with, the viruses in the 7896 clade, unpublished CoVs, and coronavirus reverse genetics.
The Seeker tweeted about the dissertation submitted by Ning Wang in May 2014:
• This very obviously – and for the third time – flies in the face of WIV’s claim that the miner’s illness were thought to be related to fungal infection. https://t.co/Rp3xVVTXKJ
— The Seeker (@TheSeeker268) May 12, 2021
The Seeker tweeted that fever patient sera were obtained from a hospital in Yunnan Province. “30 sera were obtained in total, and all marked MJ (almost certainly Mojiang),” Ning Wang stated in his dissertation.
Shi’s Zenghli’s addendum in Nature magazine mentions only 13 sera collected from four patients, The Seeker notes.
He also notes that, for the first time, there is a report (in Ning Wang’s dissertation) about Ra4991. states: “Overlap PCR was performed on the amplified bat coronavirus N gene, of which 4991, 3740(β)-N was amplified by laboratory associates.”
The Seeker also notes that Ning Wang thanks Linfa Wang for his “guidance” on the project. “This confirms my long-held suspicion that Linfa Wang knew about the miners outbreak,” The Seeker said.
One of the theses unearthed by The Seeker was submitted to the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences by Yu Ping in June 2019.
The Seeker and @franciscodeasis note that the thesis confirms, for the first time, that the viruses in the 7896 clade from the Mojiang mine were sequenced a long time before the Covid-19 outbreak.
“And more than just the RdRp fragment: i.e. the spike of 7896; ORF8 of 7896, 7909 & 7952; and the RBD+NTD of 7905, 7909, 7924 & 7931,” The Seeker tweeted. “WIV had all these sequences at the time most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 and they chose not to disclose it in Jan 2020, and even after 15 months.”
Lei-Ping Zeng states in his dissertation submitted in April 2017: “Using established reverse genetics techniques, we selected genetically diverse S genes of 12 bat SL-CoV strains and replaced them on the genomic backbone of WIV1, and successfully rescued four of these S gene chimeric recombinant viruses, including SL-CoV Rs4231, Rs4874, Rs7327, and RsSHC014.”
He adds: “The reverse genetics system of bat SL-CoV WIV1 established in this study can be used to rescue viruses whose sequences have only been identified, to study the function of virus-encoded proteins, to help assess their pathogenicity, and to explore their evolutionary and transmission mechanisms.
‘It can also help to evaluate the effectiveness of existing antibodies and drugs against SARS against these bat-derived SL-CoV. ”
‘Politics always in the room’
Members of the DRASTIC team have pointed out the flaws in arguments put forward by Ben Embarek.
In an interview with Science magazine, published on February 14, Ben Embarek said the team was not closing the door on the lab-source hypothesis, but that it would not be investigating it in the coming weeks and months.
He said the team had difficulties designing future studies to look into the laboratory claims within its joint group. “ … if you want to explore such a hypothesis further, you need a different mechanism,” Ben Embarek said.
“You need to do a formal audit, and that’s far beyond what our team is mandated to do or has the tools and capabilities to do.”
The fact that the lab-origin hypothesis was listed or assessed as extremely unlikely was not the same as if it had been listed or assessed as impossible, Ben Embarek said.
“We’re not closing the door … It’s not something we’re going to pursue in the coming weeks and months. But our assessment is out there, and the topic is on the table.”
When the team was in China, the politics was always in the room “on the other side of the table”, Ben Embarek told Science.
António Duarte (@AntGDuarte) tweeted to Ben Embarek: “If ‘the mission could not carry out the formal audit needed to explore the [lab origin] possibility further’ how could it be deemed ‘extremely unlikely’?”
The Seeker (@TheSeeker268) tweeted that Ben Embarek should be saying “we weren’t able to eliminate the possibility of a lab origin because they won’t let us investigate” rather than “it was assessed as a not likely scenario”. The act of suppressing should have raised the level of inquiry even more, The Seeker says.
Ben Embarek said on March 30 that the investigation into the origin of SARS-CoV-2 was a “work in progress”. He said that the latest mission only “scratched the surface” of a very complex set of studies that needed to be conducted.
He said that, in examining the arguments for and against the various hypotheses and pathways, the team tried to stay focused on hard facts and to stay away from “suspicions, ideas, theories, and so on”.
Jamie Metzl has repeatedly asked Ben Embarek to enter into dialogue with independent scientists about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. He has reached out to him multiple times, both privately and publicly.
‘Peculiar genetic features’
On March 25, DRASTIC team members published a new paper about the possible lab origin of SARS-CoV-2.
In the paper published in Environmental Chemistry Letters, Rossana Segreto et al. say that, while a natural origin is still possible and the search for a potential host in nature should continue, “the amount of peculiar genetic features identified in SARS-CoV-2′s genome does not rule out a possible gain-of-function origin, which should be therefore discussed in an open scientific debate”.
Segreto et al. say that several characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 taken together are not easily explained by a natural zoonotic origin hypothesis. These include a low rate of evolution in the early phase of transmission; the lack of evidence for recombination events; a high pre-existing binding to human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2); a novel furin cleavage site (FCS) insert; a flat ganglioside-binding domain (GBD) of the spike protein that conflicts with host evasion survival patterns exhibited by other coronaviruses; and high human and mouse peptide mimicry.
An FCS is a segment of four amino acids that enables a virus to use furin in the human body as an enzyme to dissolve its coating so that it can release its genetic material to infect cells. Furin cleavage sites tend to be more infectious than cleavage sites that use other enzymes.
The spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 comprises two sub-units, S1 and S2. S1 recognises and binds to ACE2 and S2 mediates viral cell membrane fusion. The FCS is positioned at the S1/S2 junction. The question is; did the site evolve naturally or it was inserted at that junction by researchers?
Segreto et al. say that initial assumptions against a laboratory origin have remained unsubstantiated.
“Furthermore, over a year after the initial outbreak in Wuhan, there is still no clear evidence of zoonotic transfer from a bat or intermediate species,” they wrote. “Given the immense social and economic impact of this pandemic, identifying the true origin of SARS-CoV-2 is fundamental to preventing future outbreaks.
“The search for SARS-CoV-2′s origin should include an open and unbiased inquiry into a possible laboratory origin.”
The researchers say that the low binding affinity of SARS-CoV-2 to bat ACE2 studied to date does not support Chiroptera as a direct zoonotic agent.
“Furthermore, the reliance on pangolin coronavirus receptor binding domain (RBD) similarity to SARS-CoV-2 as evidence for natural zoonotic spillover is flawed, as pangolins are unlikely to play a role in SARS-CoV-2′s origin and recombination is not supported by recent analysis,” Segreto et al. wrote.
“At the same time, genomic analyses pointed out that SARS-CoV-2 exhibits multiple peculiar characteristics not found in other Sarbecoviruses.”
Segreto et al. say that, although two pangolin coronaviruses exhibited strong binding to human ACE2, binding to pangolin ACE2 was approximately tenfold weaker and binding to bat Rhinolophus ferremequinum ACE2 was very weak, with similar relative binding relationships exhibited by SARS-CoV-2.
“This indicates that neither pangolin coronavirus had adapted well to pangolins and that more research is required to validate the viability of coronaviruses to spread naturally between pangolins,” Segreto et al. wrote.
“Because of a 10–15% divergence throughout the entire spike protein with the exclusion of the N-terminal domain, Boni et al. (2020) concluded that SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely to be a recombinant of an ancestor of pangolin coronavirus and the closest SARS-CoV-2 relative, RaTG13.”
Segreto et al say that a novel multibasic FCS confers numerous pathogenetically advantageous capabilities, the existence of which is difficult to explain though natural evolution.
“SARS-CoV-2 is the only Sarbecovirus to contain a furin cleavage site (Coutard et al. 2020). Indeed, no coronavirus with a spike protein sequence homology of greater than 40% to SARS-CoV-2 has a FCS (Wu et al. 2020a),” they wrote.
They add that SARS-CoV-2 to human ACE2 binding is far stronger than SARS-CoV, yet there is no indication of an amount of evolutionary adaptation that SARS-CoV or MERS-CoV underwent.
Segreto et al. also point to the flat topography of the GBD in the N-terminal domain (NTD) of SARS-CoV-2, which they say does not conform with typical host evasion evolutionary measures exhibited by other human coronaviruses.
“The combination of binding strength, human and mouse peptide mimicry, as well as high adaptation for human infection and transmission from the earliest strains might suggest the use of humanised mice for the development of SARS-CoV-2 in a laboratory environment,” Segreto et al. add.
Segreto et al. also say that imported frozen food contaminated with SARS-CoV-2 is an “exceedingly unlikely source of the initial outbreak in Wuhan”.
The Mojiang mine
Monali Rahalkar, who is a member of DRASTIC, says that the fact that researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology collected the RaTG13 sample supports the lab origin hypothesis.
In a preliminary abstract published on September 17 in Frontiers in Public Health, Rahalkar (pictured left) and Rahul A. Bahulikar say that RaTG13 (RaBtCoV/4991) was collected from the Tongguan mineshaft in Mojiang, Yunnan, in 2013.
“Surprisingly, the same mineshaft was also associated with a severe pneumonia-like illness in miners in 2012 killing three of the six miners,” Rahalkar and Bahulikar wrote.
“A master’s thesis (in the Chinese language) was found on the cnki.net website which described in detail the severe illness in miners. The thesis concluded that a SARS-like CoV originating from Chinese horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus) was the predicted causative agent.”
The thesis was written by the Chinese doctor, Li Xu, who treated the miners and sent their tissue samples to the WIV for testing, and was published in May 2013.
Rahalkar and Bahulikar explain that the cases were remotely monitored by a prominent pulmonologist in China.
“The retrospective analysis of the pneumonia cases shows striking similarities with Covid-19. Bilateral pneumonia, vascular complications like pulmonary thromboembolism, and secondary infections are the main similarities,” Rahalkar and Bahulikar wrote.
‘The treatment regimes were similar to the currently given treatment for Covid-19. We propose that the Mojiang mineshaft and the miners’ illness cases could provide important clues to the investigation of the origin of SARS-CoV-2.”
Rahalkar and Bahulikar say more about the illness of the miners in an article in The Week magazine:
In their full, peer-reviewed article, published in Frontiers in Public Health on October 20, Rahalkar and Bahulikar wrote that the striking similarities between the Mojiang pneumonia cases and Covid-19 are noteworthy, “as is the fact that RaTG13/CoV4991, the next genomic relative of SARS-CoV-2 was found in the same mineshaft”.
The two researchers wrote: “Although we cannot say that RaTG13 or SARS-CoV-2 infected the miners, there is a high chance that it could be a virus quite similar in genetic composition to these two.
“The coincidence between the 2012 illness in Mojiang miners, the subsequent samplings, and finding the nearest SARS-CoV-2 relative from this single mine warrants further inquiry, and the data along with the full history of this incident would be invaluable in the context of the current pandemic.”
Rahalkar and Bahulikar go into detail about Li Xu’s master’s thesis, in which he concluded that the pneumonia cases were due to viral pneumonia, primarily from SARS-like coronaviruses originating from horseshoe bats.
“The thesis featured medical reports, radiological images such as CT scans, and detailed information regarding the diagnosis and treatment of the miners,” they write.
Radiography showed interstitial pneumonia, ground-glass opacities, and severe acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) in some of the patients and some showed clotting complications such as pulmonary thromboembolism or thrombosis and elevated D-dimer values.
Dr Zhong Nanshan, an expert in respiratory diseases and a national advisor about the SARS and Covid-19 epidemics, provided remote consultation for the two patients who had the most serious illness.
Nanshan’s conclusion that the Mojiang miners’ pneumonia appeared to be primarily viral and that it was most probably due to bat-related coronaviruses, is noteworthy, Rahalkar and Bahulikar say.
Rahalkar and Bahulikar add that, according to a translation of a PhD thesis by Canping Huang, supervised by George Gao, the “blood test results of four cases showed that: four people carried SARS virus IgG antibodies, of which two were discharged with higher antibody levels … and two which were hospitalised had lower antibody levels …”.
Rahalkar and Bahulikar ask: “Why were the severe pneumonia cases in 2012 not mentioned in any of the WIV publications before 2020?’ and ‘Were any SARS-like CoV isolated from the bat faecal samples collected in 2012–13?’.
They also ask why the Mojiang miners pneumonia cases in 2012 were not reported to any public health agency such as the WHO and why programmes like PREDICT didn’t mention the lethal pneumonia cases as a mini-outbreak.
Rahalkar has issued a detailed critique of an addendum that has been added to the article published by Zhou Peng, Shi Zhengli et al. in Nature on February 3, 2020, entitled ‘A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin’.
The addendum was published in Nature on November 17 and provides further information about RaTG13.
In the original paper, the researchers said they obtained full-length genome sequences from five patients at an early stage of the outbreak in Wuhan.
“The sequences are almost identical and share 79.6% sequence identity to SARS-CoV,” Zhengli et al. said.
The researchers said that a short region of RdRp from BatCoV RaTG13 showed high sequence identity to 2019-nCoV.
“Simplot analysis showed that 2019-nCoV was highly similar throughout the genome to RaTG13, with an overall genome sequence identity of 96.2 percent,” they said. The SARS-CoV-2 genome and its spike glycoprotein show 96.11% and 92.86% identities to the Rhinolophus affinis bat coronavirus, respectively.
In her critique of the addendum, Rahalkar states: “For the first time the WIV authors admit that the Mojiang mineshaft miners had severe respiratory disease. Further they also tell us that they collected the sample which they renamed RaTG13 from the same mineshaft.
“This is the first written evidence that WIV agrees that they collected a virus or a sample, which is until now the closest neighbour of SARS-CoV-2, from a mineshaft. And that the same mineshaft was the reason why the miners, or people working cleaning the mine, got ill.”
Rahalkar asks why the information presented in the addendum is coming nine and a half months after the original article was published.
Rahalkar challenges the statement in the addendum about patient samples testing negative for SARS antibodies. Referring to the PhD thesis by Canping Huang, she says he clearly wrote that the four miners tested positive for SARS IgG antibodies.
She also points out that there is no reference in the addendum to the fact that six miners fell ill and three of them died. “The addendum fails to give any account of the death of the other two miners,” Rahalkar wrote.
“There are CT scans in the master’s thesis identical to those of Covid-19 patients,” she said.
WIV researchers state in the paper by Ge Xing-Yi in 2016 that they only discovered one SARS-like CoV, when they had in fact found eight more, Rahalkar adds. No details about these eight SARS-like CoVs are given in the addendum, she says. No IDs or sequences are provided.
Segreto asks in a tweet: “Why it is not disclosed in the Addendum of the Zhou paper that the other 8 betaCoVs identified with RaTG13 belong to the 7896 group but #DRASTIC had to discover it? Why they do not release their spike’s sequence? Why the access to that cave is blocked?”
In Annex D7 (Wuhan Institute of Virology) the WHO-China report’s authors refer to the “matter of morbidity and mortality in miners in a mine in Mojiang, Yunnan Province”. They place their remarks under the title ‘Conspiracy theories’.
The authors wrote that doctors sent Shi Zhengli the samples for testing after the miners had been ill for about three months. Miners had been to the cave two or three times and the cave was one metre thick with bat faeces, they add.
“Professor Shi’s team went there in 2012–15 about seven times to look for novel viruses. They found no viruses close to SARS-CoV but there was a rat henipa-like virus (Mojiang paramyxovirus), as reported by another group in China,” they wrote.
“Samples taken during subsequent visits to the cave were found to contain no viral sequence related to SARS-CoV-2 (like RaTG13),” the authors said. “None of them has higher similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than the RaTG13 has.”
The authors conclude that none of these viruses are the progenitor virus of SARS-CoV-2. This would usually entail more than 99% genome similarity, they say.
“None could be isolated,” the WHO-China authors wrote. “The reported illnesses associated with the miners, according to the WIV experts, were more likely explained by fungal infections acquired when removing a thick layer of guano.”
In an article about the controversies in Annex D7, Rahalkar points out that the authors of the WHO-China report “assume” that all the coronavirus research was done in P3 and P4 laboratories. On the contrary, she says, Shi Zhengli said that all the coronavirus research conducted in Wuhan was done in P2 and P3 labs (Q and A in Science magazine, July 2020).
Rahalkar points to the article in Frontiers in Public Health that she co-wrote, which goes into comprehensive detail about the six Mojiang miners, and to the PhD thesis by Canping Huang in which it is stated that four of them carried SARS virus IgG antibodies.
There is evidence in the PhD thesis and elsewhere, she says, that is completely at odds with claims in the WHO-China report for which “no further support (medical or other documents)” is provided. that the miners most likely had fungal infections.
“They disregard what Dr Zhong Nanshan said: that the miners had primary viral infection most likely due to the bat coronaviruses and the fungal infections were secondary,” Rahalkar said.
“The WIV skilfully does not mention either the master’s thesis by Li Xu or the PhD thesis by Canping Huang.
“If fungus was the primary cause, it has to be proven by aspiration of the fluid and cultivation of the causative fungus, and its identification. No such work, supporting its statements, has been demonstrated by the WIV.”
The authors of the WHO-China report have completely overlooked the fact that SARS-CoV-2’s nearest neighbour, RaTG13, was collected from a cave where miners got a Covid-19-like illness, Rahalkar says.
In addition, she says, it’s stated in Annex D7 that the miners had been to the cave two or three times, but, according to Li Xu’s master thesis, four of them worked 12 hours a day for 14 days and the others worked there for four to five days.
Rahalkar is curious to know what kind of samples the WIV received from the Mojiang miners, whether the samples are still stored in the WIV, and whether they are available for study by other researchers.
“It would also be of particular value to know whether any viruses were isolated and if there is any DNA/RNA available from these samples,” she said. “It would also be useful to know if PCR was performed on the miners’ samples.” When was the mineshaft in Mojiang closed down? she asks.
The list of questions continues: “Why was the Mojiang mine being visited by researchers until October 2014? Was the mine open for researchers and were any samples brought after 2014? Did any of the researchers who visited the Mojiang mineshaft get infected by any coronavirus between 2012 and 2019? Are there any whole genome sequences available for SARS-like CoV originating from this mine?”
Recently, more than eight news reporters were blocked from visiting the Tongguan mine, Rahalkar points out. “Why didn’t the WHO team visit the mine and recommend resampling?” she asks.
In May 2013, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology initiated a project (2013FY113500) to identify and investigate viral pathogens and their relation with major infectious diseases. “Why is the pathogen database associated with this project not accessible anymore?” Rahalkar asks.
Rahalkar also takes issue with the statement in the WHO-China report that “all fieldwork is done with full PPE”. Numerous photos of WIV researchers show that this was not the case, she says.
Pandemic preparedness and response
On May 12, the co-chairs of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response presented the panel’s findings and recommendations, which are published in a report entitled “Covid-19: Make it the Last Pandemic”.
The panel called on member states to request the United Nations secretary-general to convene a special session of the UN general assembly to reach agreement on the reforms needed “to ensure that the world can prevent the next outbreak of a new pathogen becoming another pandemic”.
Its recommendations include the following:
- establishing a Global Health Threats Council, whose membership should be endorsed by a United Nations general assembly resolution;
- adopting a Pandemic Framework Convention within the next six months, using the powers under Article 19 of the WHO constitution;
- adopting a political declaration by heads of state and government at a global summit under the auspices of the UN general assembly through a special session “convened for the purpose and committing to transforming pandemic preparedness and response in line with the recommendations made in this report”;
- focusing and strengthening the independence, authority and financing of the WHO; and
- investing in preparedness now “to create fully functional capacities at the national, regional, and global level”.
The panel says a new international system for surveillance, validation and alert should be established.
Jamie Metzl tweeted his response to the report, saying it made essential recommendations that must be realised, but was also “dangerously incomplete”.
Metzl says that issuing a report about pandemic preparedness without referencing the lab-incident hypothesis is like issuing a report about Chernobyl without referencing reactor design.
3/ The #LastPandemic report presents a sanitized history that significantly let’s China off the hook & doesn’t mention how #China’s massive & ongoing coverup massively amplified the crisis. #Trump’s catastrophic failure also added fuel to the fire.
— Jamie Metzl (@JamieMetzl) May 12, 2021
Metzl says the report fails mention China’s “ongoing effort to destroy samples, hide records, imprison journalists and enforce a universal gag order in Chinese scientists”.
The SarsCoV2 sequence was released, Metzl says, “as an act of defiance”.
Metzl says the new report doesn’t mention “the very real possibility Covid-19 stems from an accidental lab incident” and makes no recommendations about the regulation of high- containment labs around the world where, he says, dangerous work is being carried out.
9/ I fully support nearly all of the outstanding recommendations in the #LastPandemic report, but this is not a moment for half-truths. This is a moment for fearless courage. We’ve got to be honest about the problems we face to have the best chance of fixing them.
— Jamie Metzl (@JamieMetzl) May 12, 2021
The authors of the WHO-China report say that, “in order to further study the potential for (frozen) food as a source of infection or the cold chain as an introduction pathway of SARS-CoV-2”, case-control studies of outbreaks in which the cold chain product and food supply is positive would be useful to provide support for cold chain products and food as a transmission route”.
They say that if there are credible links to products from other countries or regions with evidence for circulation of SARS-CoV-2 before the end of 2019, such pathways would also need to be followed up.
“Screening of leftover frozen cold chain products sold in Huanan market from December 2019 if still available is needed, particularly frozen animal products from farmed wildlife or linked to areas with evidence for early circulation of SARS-CoV-2 from molecular data or other analyses.”
The report’s authors also say that “consideration should be given to further joint review of the data on respiratory illness from the on-site clinics at the military games in October 2019”.
Chinese officials have reportedly suggested that a US delegation to the military games might have introduced the virus to Wuhan.
The authors of the WHO-China report say there is a need for more data from China’s blood banks. “Given the outstanding questions and the potential for limited clusters that would not be detected through the studies done so far, access to systematically collected historic samples including routinely stored blood bank samples would be of great added value for the origins studies,” they wrote.
The four scenarios laid out in the WHO-China report
The WHO-China report lays out the following four scenarios, giving the evidence for and against each hypothesis:
Direct zoonotic transmission
Some of the arguments cited in support of this hypothesis
- Most emerging diseases originate from animal reservoirs and there is strong evidence that most of the current human coronaviruses have originated from animals.
- Surveys of the bat virome conducted following the SARS epidemic in 2003 have found SARSr-CoV in various bats, particularly Rhinolophus bats, and viruses with the high genetic similarity to SARS-CoV-2 have been found in Rhinolophus bats sampled in China in 2013, Japan in 2013, Thailand in 2020, and Cambodia in 2010.
- Recently, two distinct types of SARSr-CoV were detected in Malayan pangolins. The RaTG13 and pangolin coronaviruses do bind to human ACE2, although the fit is not optimal.
- Seeding of SARS-CoV-2 in mink populations has shown that mink are highly susceptible and, given the available evidence, the possibility that minks are the primary source of SARS-CoV-2 cannot be ruled out.
- Although many betacoronavirus sequences have been found in a range of bats, isolation of viruses from them is rare, and only a few of the identified full genomes have human ACE2 binding properties.
- Because several contact residues between the bat and pangolin viruses and the human ACE2 receptor are distinct from those in SARS-CoV-2, the affinity is low, and the viruses are genetically still quite distinct from SARS-CoV-2.
- The link with, and focus on, bats may be spurious as far less sampling has been done of other animal species.
- Contacts between humans and bats or pangolins are not likely to be as common as contact between humans and livestock or farmed wildlife, and virus presence in host animals is likely variable and seasonal, further decreasing the likelihood of an infectious contact.
- Despite the consumption of bat and other wild animal meat in some countries, there is no evidence for the transmission of coronaviruses from such encounters, and the trace-back investigation found no evidence for the presence of bats or pangolins (or their products) in the Huanan market.
Introduction via an intermediate host followed by zoonotic transmission
Some of the arguments cited in support of this hypothesis
- Although the closest related viruses have been found in bats, the evolutionary distance between these bat viruses and SARS-CoV-2 is estimated to be several decades, suggesting a missing link (either a missing progenitor virus, or evolution of a progenitor virus in an intermediate host).
- An intermediary step involving an amplifying host has been observed for several other emerging viruses (henipaviruses, influenza viruses, SARS-CoV, and MERS-CoV).
- The increasing number of animals shown to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 includes animals that are farmed in sufficient densities to allow potential for enzootic circulation.
- SARS-CoV-2 has been identified in an increasing number of animal species, but genetic and epidemiological studies have suggested that these were infections introduced from humans rather than enzootic virus circulation.
- Based on epidemiological analysis and genetic sequencing of viruses from new cases throughout 2020, there is no evidence of repeated introduction of early SARS-CoV-2 strains of potential animal origins into humans in China.
- There was no genetic or serological evidence for SARS-CoV-2 in a wide range of domestic and wild animals tested to date.
- The screening of the major livestock species was done across the country and provided no evidence for circulation of a related virus.
Introduction through the cold/food chain
Some of the arguments cited in support of this hypothesis
- Since the near-elimination of SARS-CoV-2 in China, the country experienced some outbreaks related to imported frozen products in 2020.
- Screening programmes found some limited evidence for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in different batches of unopened packages and containers.
- Foodborne outbreaks with enteric viruses are common and – when entering the food supply – may lead to geographically dispersed outbreaks that can be difficult to detect.
- Although typical foodborne infections are thought to be restricted to enteric pathogens (pathogens in the intestines), there is some evidence that the oral route could lead to SARS-CoV-2 infection.
- There is no conclusive evidence for foodborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and the probability of cold chain contamination with the virus from a reservoir is very low.
- Industrial food production has high levels of hygiene criteria and is regularly audited.
- In 2020, most viruses were found in low concentrations and are not amplified on cold chain products
- There is no evidence of infection in any of the animals tested after the Wuhan outbreak.
Introduction through a laboratory incident
Some of the arguments cited in support of this hypothesis
- Although rare, laboratory accidents do happen, and different laboratories around the world are working with bat CoVs.
- When working in particular with virus cultures, but also with animal inoculations or clinical samples, humans could become infected in laboratories with limited biosafety or poor laboratory management practice, or if there is negligence.
- RaTG13, detected in bat anal swabs, has been sequenced at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
- The Wuhan CDC laboratory moved on December 2, 2019, to a new location near the Huanan market. Such moves can be disruptive for the operations of any laboratory.
- Human ACE2 receptor binding and a furin cleavage site in SARS-CoV-2 have been found in animal viruses and elements of the furin cleavage site are present in RmYN02 and the new Thailand bat SARSr-CoV.
- The WHO team says the laboratories in Wuhan in which researchers were working with either CoVs diagnostics and/or CoVs isolation and vaccine development all had high-quality biosafety level facilities that were well managed.
- No disruptions or incidents were reported in relation to the Wuhan CDC laboratory’s move.
Report annexes can be accessed here.
Members of the WHO investigating team
Daszak is a zoologist and president of the EcoHealth Alliance. He is also leading The Lancet Covid-19 commission’s task force investigating the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
Koopmans is a Dutch virologist who heads the Erasmus Medical Centre’s Department of Viroscience in Rotterdam. She is a member of the WHO’s scientific advisory group and has been involved in tracing outbreaks of Sars-CoV-2 among farmed minks in the Netherlands.
Dedkov is an epidemiologist. He is the deputy director for research at the Pasteur Institute in Saint Petersburg in Russia.
Dwyer is a medical virologist and director of the Centre for Infectious Diseases and Microbiology Laboratory Services at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, Australia. He has advised the Australian government on pandemic preparedness and worked with the WHO during the SARS outbreak in Beijing. He’s a member of the WHO’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN).
Watson is an epidemiologist and doctor who is an honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a visiting lecturer at University College London. He headed the UK’s infectious disease surveillance and control programme for 24 years and was formerly England’s deputy chief medical officer
Thea Kølsen Fischer
Fischeris a professor in viral epidemics and infections at the University of Copenhagen and head of research at the Nordsjællands Hospital in Denmark.
Farag El Moubasher
El Moubasher is an epidemiologist who heads the infectious diseases control programme in Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health.
Nguyen-Viet is an ecologist who is co-leader of the animal and human health programme at the International Livestock Research Institute in Vietnam.
Maeda is a veterinary microbiologist at Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases. He has published research on such topics as the Japanese encephalitis virus and novel viruses found in bats.
Leendertz is a vet by training. At Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, he has led research into highly pathogenic microorganisms in tropical Africa since 2007. A particular focus of his work is how diseases jump from wild, non-human primates to humans.
The international team also included five WHO experts led by Peter Ben Embarek; two Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representatives and two World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) representatives.
This article includes rejigged information from my previous piece entitled SARS-CoV-2: WHO-China report dismisses lab-origin hypothesis as being ‘extremely unlikely’.
My earlier article ‘SARS-CoV-2: lab-origin hypothesis gains traction’, which includes comprehensive information about previous laboratory leaks, can be found here and there is a French translation (before updates) @ France Soir.
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