Over the last year and half there has been a bitter debate over the origins of COVID-19, specifically whether it began as a spill-over event from a wild animal to humans (the natural origins hypothesis) or because of an accident at a science facility (the lab leak hypothesis). We now have some new information to shed light on this debate. We’re all familiar with Freedom of Information Requests in the United States. These often don’t lead to the release of information, because in practice individuals or the media often have to take the government to court to get this information. That’s exactly what the Intercept did, and the results were worth it. The Intercept received 900 pages of documents regarding two grants, which they discuss in an article, written by Sharon Lerner and Mara Hvistendahl, “New Details Emerge about Coronavirus research at Chinese Lab.”
One of the key issues with the lab leak hypothesis was whether work with bat coronaviruses was being done at a lab in Wuhan, including gain of function work. Yes, yes it was, although there is a significant debate about what constitutes gain of function work. And it turns out the documents that prove this come from a U.S. based health organization called Ecohealth Alliance, which used federal funds to finance this research. This has been suspected for some time, but we didn’t have much information to clarify the details of this work. Now we know that a US researcher, Peter Daszak, had a grant to screen bats for novel coronaviruses. This in and of itself might be valuable research, if undertaken under adequate safety conditions. The work was done at the Wuhan University Center for Animal Experiment, not The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has received the most attention in the press. And there are concerns about the kind of work researchers were doing with bat coronaviruses. According to Richard Ebright, they were doing more than just infecting ordinary mice with this virus: “The viruses that they constructed were tested for their ability to infect mice that were engineered to display human type receptors on their cell(s)’.” According to this article, the grant to do this work ran from 2014 to 2019.
I was initially skeptical that the work of the Ecohealth Alliance could have contributed in any way to a lab leak. But there does seem to have been a contradiction of interests in the early investigation of COVID-19’s emergence. Peter Daszak was one of the scientists who signed a letter to the Lancet on February 19, 2020 in which scientists denounced as conspiracy theories the idea that a lab leak began the pandemic. He also was part of the WHO’s inquiry commission that went to China in January 2021 to try to uncover the origins of the virus. Since he was involved with work at question in China, his presence would seem to undermine the potential impartiality of this investigation. More recently, he has withdrawn from at least one effort to investigate the pandemic’s origins: “Dr Peter Daszak, president of the US-based EcoHealth Alliance, has “recused himself” from the inquiry by leading medical journal the Lancet after he failed to declare ties to the Wuhan Laboratory of Virology, which was conducting research into coronavirus in bats.” The point is that the early investigation of the lab leak theory may not have been fully impartial, and key evidence was missing.
Some scientists say that what these newly-revealed documents demonstrate is shocking. As Richard H. Ebright (Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University) has said, the “materials further reveal that one of the resulting novel, laboratory-generated SARS-related coronaviruses –one not been (sic.) previously disclosed publicly– was more pathogenic to humanized mice than the starting virus from which it was constructed. . .”
We need to have better information on multiple questions: did miners in southern China (specifically the Mojiang mine in Yunnan) suffer from an acute pneumonia similar to COVID-19 in 2012? Was this pneumonia caused by a coronavirus which was then brought to a laboratory in Wuhan for further research? Was gain of function work with coronaviruses done at one or more labs in Wuhan, and what -precisely- were the biosafety practices and procedures? Was there a major move at one of these labs in December 2019, and what were the safety practices at the lab during the move, particularly for bats and other animals, as well as coronavirus samples? Were any employees of these labs ill with a pneumonia-like illness in November/early December 2019? Is it true that one U.S. based scientist, Ian Lipkin of Columbia University, heard of the outbreak on December 15, 2019, well before China revealed the outbreak to the WHO? If so, does this mean that the Chinese authorities knew of the outbreak, but did not share this information in a timely fashion, so that the world could try to prevent the disease from escaping China? Increasingly, the answer to most of these questions would seem to be a plausible yes.
As Alina Chan (a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute) points out, COVID-19 wouldn’t be the only example of a leak at a facility in China causing a significant disease outbreak. Elizabeth Shim’s article on this outbreak, “Brucellosis cases in China exceed 10,000 after vaccine factory accident,” is well worth reading. So we know that such accidents happen, including in China, at the same moment that COVID-19 itself emerged.
While we cannot yet know the truth, as others have said, it seems a strange coincidence that the outbreak began in the same city in China where -as these documents from the Intercept show- work was being done on bat coronaviruses. And how can we trust any denials, when much of the information that we had was not originally released by EcoHealth Alliance or the Chinese government, but rather by a small band of digital detectives scouring the web, as well as journalists, such as those at the Intercept?
Of course the lab leak hypothesis is not proven. Most epidemics begin with a natural cross-over event from animals to humans. But the irony is that if, indeed, the virus emerged from a lab leak, it not only did so unintentionally, but also because scientists were trying to study coronaviruses to avoid and prevent epidemics. If the lab leak hypothesis is correct, I can’t help but feel empathy for the scientists and funding agencies, which must have been horrified as they realized what they might have unleashed. But it is long past time for transparency, so that everyone can understand the data and evidence regarding whether a lab-leak in Wuhan, China began this pandemic.
If you want to see the documents (two grant applications) themselves, Mara Hvistendahl (@Mara Hvistendahl) has Tweeted the links, which you can for yourself here. The first one is the key document:
“Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence”
“Understanding Risk of Zoonotic Virus Emergence in Emerging Infectious Disease Hotspots of Southeast Asia”
I want to thank both Sharon Lerner and Mara Hvistendahl for their careful investigative reporting, and making these documents public.