Editor’s note: More than a year after the pandemic started, Americans are still sifting through facts and conspiracy theories to understand just what happened. This series goes back to the beginning of COVID-19 and brings us up to date on our unprecedented odyssey through politics, infectious disease, public health mandates, and societal shutdown. Part 1 showed how a theory about the origins of coronavirus has come full circle: declarations that the virus came from a Chinese lab were firmly rejected, though the evidence is mounting that these allegations could hold water. Part 2 discusses government involvement and earlier signs of the virus in China.
As explained in the first sections of the COVID origin series, evidence showed that Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) researchers were possibly developing the virus a month before any cases were reported. The background on the lab bat and SARS research, and government reluctance to investigate the facility as being ground zero were also explored. This final installment looks at gain-of-function research as a possible factor in the delayed investigation, China’s military involvement, and humanizing rodents to make the virus more transferable to people.
Lab Leak Theory
Critics blame former President Donald Trump for starting the theory that COVID-19 came from the Wuhan lab in China. However, those early suspicions were posted by Chinese social media users who started questioning the origins as early as January 2020. In February of that year, a research paper surfaced asking how a novel bat coronavirus was able to get to a major metropolis of 11 million people, in winter, when most bats were hibernating, and then why the blame was placed on a wet market as the epicenter – even though bats weren’t being sold there at the time.
The research determined there were two laboratories sitting just 280 meters from the market: the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “[T]he killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan,” the co-authors of the paper concluded. According to Vanity Fair, the paper disappeared from the internet almost as soon as it had been posted. But not before it had gained attention in the U.S.
Matthew Pottinger, an Asia expert and former journalist, put together a COVID-19 origins team. He said he kept his group small on purpose because so many people within the government were “wholly discounting the possibility of a lab leak, who were predisposed that it was impossible.” He added that many experts were either receiving funding for gain-of-function research or had approved it. Their “conflicted” status, Pottinger said, “played a profound role in muddying the waters and contaminating the shot at having an impartial inquiry.”
In 2011, Ron Fouchier, a researcher at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, revealed research in which he had genetically altered the H5N1 avian influenza strain, making it transmissible among ferrets. He declared that he had produced “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you could make.” This sparked a heated debate between scientists battling over the risks and benefits of such gain-of-function research.
Pottinger’s team found a 2015 paper by Shi Zhengli, WIV’s leading coronavirus researcher known as the “Bat Woman,” and Ralph Baric, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina. The paper, according to VF, proved “that the spike protein of a novel coronavirus could infect human cells.” The theory was proven: “Using mice as subjects, they inserted the protein from a Chinese rufous horseshoe bat into the molecular structure of the SARS virus from 2002, creating a new, infectious pathogen.”
The gain-of-function experiment alarmed even some of the scientists, who wrote: “scientific review panels may deem similar studies … too risky to pursue.” Acknowledgments within the paper cited several organizations that helped fund the study, including, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, for which Dr. Anthony Fauci has been working since 1984 and was director, and EcoHealth Alliance. EcoHealth is run by Peter Daszak, the zoologist mentioned in Part 2 who went to China to investigate WIV only to say his team didn’t need the information from the lab’s database, and also one of the signers in The Lancet statement that condemned the lab leak theory.
Emails acquired by U.S. Right to Know suggest that Daszak not only organized the Lancet statement but did so to conceal his activity. The subject line in one email says: “No need for you to sign the ‘Statement’ Ralph!!”. The email – recipients of which included Dr. Ralph Baric and Shi Zhengli, said:
“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.
“We’ll then put it out in a way that doesn’t link it back to our collaboration so we maximize an independent voice.”
Although Baric did not sign, at least six other signers had either worked at or had been funded by EcoHealth.
Connecting Some Dots
In 2014, the Obama administration enacted a moratorium on any new funding for gain-of-function research regarding making influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses more transmissible, with the notation that there will be exceptions for cases that are “urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security.” Former President Trump lifted the moratorium and enacted a new system called the HHS P3CO Framework (for Potential Pathogen Care and Oversight). This made it so that the burden for ensuring the safety of the research would fall upon the agency or federal departments funding it.
According to VF, an agency official from NIH said: “If you ban gain-of-function research, you ban all of virology,” and then added, “Ever since the moratorium, everyone’s gone wink-wink and just done gain-of-function research anyway.”
Just five months before the moratorium was established, in May 2014, EcoHealth Alliance, with Daszak as its president, secured an NIAID grant of nearly $3.7 million. Part of that went to researching gain-of-function experiments to see which animal viruses could be passed on to humans. By 2018, the company was getting up to $15 million a year in grant money from several federal agencies including the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security, according to 990 tax exemption forms filed in New York.
Shi Zhengli also listed grants from the U.S. government of more than $1.2 million: Between 2014 and 2019, $665,000 from the NIH, and $559,500 from USAID. Some of those funds were received from EcoHealth, whose president deemed it not necessary to see virus data from the Wuhan Lab.
The correlation between EcoHealth and the Wuhan Lab caught the attention of the Trump administration. Daszak was notified that his grant had been terminated, by order of the White House. Then, NIH tried to backtrack and reinstated the grant, but with provisions: The agency had to provide information on the “apparent disappearance” of a WIV researcher who was perhaps patient zero, and explain “diminished cell phone traffic and roadblocks around the WIV in October 2019.”
Chinese Military and Humanized Mice
Pottinger’s group, backed by the National Security Council (NSC) of which he has served as director since 2017, was led by U.S. virologists to look at a study first published in April 2020. There were 23 co-authors for the work, and of those, 11 worked for the Academy of Military Medical Science, or the Chinese army’s medical research institute. According to VF:
“Using the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, the researchers had engineered mice with humanized lungs, then studied their susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2. As the NSC officials worked backward from the date of publication to establish a timeline for the study, it became clear that the mice had been engineered sometime in the summer of 2019, before the pandemic even started. The NSC officials were left wondering: Had the Chinese military been running viruses through humanized mouse models, to see which might be infectious to humans?”
Liberty Nation’s Dave Patterson reported: “Colonel Cao Wuchun, a top epidemiologist in the PLA [People’s Liberation Army], and Major General Chen Wei, ‘China’s top biowarfare expert,’ took over command of the WIV in January 2020. The military takeover was explained in the Chinese media as designed to help create a vaccine to counter the COVID-19 virus. That was nearly three months before Shi asserted that the military working at WIV ‘is incorrect’.”
Lab Leak or Nature?
As time goes by, it will become more difficult to discover the true origin of COVID-19. Dr. David Relman of Stanford University School of Medicine has been trying to spur an investigation similar to the 9/11 Commission to try and find the answers. “This has so many different manifestations, consequences, responses across the nation,” Relman said. “All of that makes it a hundred-dimensional problem.” He added:
“With every passing day and week, the kinds of information that might prove helpful will have a tendency to dissipate and disappear. The world ages and things get moved, and biological signals degrade.”
Jamie Metzl is a former executive vice president of the Asia Society and sits on the World Health Organization’s advisory committee on human genome editing. He also served as the NSC’s director for multilateral affairs during the Clinton administration. Metzl has stated: “If zoonosis was the origin, it was a validation … of [Daszak’s] life work … But if the pandemic started as part of a lab leak, it had the potential to do to virology what Three Mile Island and Chernobyl did to nuclear science.”
Metzl’s blog has gained a lot of attention because he has asserted, since April 2020, that COVID-19 is most likely a result of an accidental lab leak from Wuhan. He suggests that Daszak’s actions were to protect himself and his career.
Read more from Kelli Ballard.