It has not been a good two-week stretch for fact-checker, nor for the mainstream media in general, nor for those whom they have elevated to oracular status. In September 2020, PolitiFact awarded its uncoveted “liar, liar, pants on fire” award to claims that Covid-19 (which we shall call SARS2 going forward) had originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). On May 17, PolitiFact removed that fact-check from its data base on the grounds that the assertion that SARS2 could not have been the product of genetic manipulation is “now more widely disputed.”
Similarly, in May 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), confidently asserted that “everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [the virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species [to humans].” Last week, at a virtual PolitiFacts conference, Dr. Fauci responded to a question about whether he still believed that SARS2 had evolved naturally, stating, “No, I’m not convinced of that.”
Nor was that the only confident assertion about which the good doctor was having second thoughts. At a May 11 Senate hearing, Senator Rand Paul asked Dr. Fauci whether NIAID, which he heads, had funded gain-of-function of research (GoF) at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. GoF refers to research to manipulate natural viruses found in animals to make them more lethal and capable of infecting human beings. GoF is a euphemism, for what Dr. Norman Doidge writes should more properly be called “virus deadliness enhancement” (“A Plague on Both Our Houses,” Tablet, February 18 2021).
Though that sounds like something done by villains bent on holding the world ransom, such research is justified by its proponents as a means of helping us anticipate viruses likely to jump from animals to human beings and develop countermeasures prior to that. It is known, for instance, that the 2002-2004 outbreak of SARS (Severed Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and 2012 MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) involved bat viruses that jumped from intermediate animals, civets in the case of the former and camels in the latter, to humans.
In response to Senator Paul’s challenge, Dr. Fauci responded unequivocally, “Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect. . . [The] National Institute of Health [of which NIAID is a division] has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” Last week, Dr. Fauci was a bit more circumspect, admitting that it is impossible to be sure that no NIAID grant money went to fund GoF research.
But the actual circumstances were far more damning. With the outbreak of MERS in 2012, the laboratory of Dr. Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina was awarded a grant of ten million dollars to carry on GoF research. In 2015, he and Dr. Shi Zhengli of WIV, and China’s foremost expert on bat viruses, published a paper announcing that they had synthesized a new viral strain of SARS that could infect human airways and which “resisted all vaccines and immunotherapy.”
At that time, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had already announced a moratorium on GoF research in response to concerns raised about the danger involved. Both HHS and NIAID had sent letters to Dr. Baric informing him of the moratorium on further GoF research. And yet his funding continued, which indicates that he must have received some form of waiver from either Dr. Frances Collins, director of NIH, or Dr. Fauci as director of NIAID. Both Collins and Fauci supported the lifting of the moratorium on GoF research in 2017.
Nor was Dr. Baric the only NIAID grant recipient conducting GoF research together with Dr. Shi Zhengli. In 2018 and 2019, Dr. Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, received grants from NIAID for research designed to test the spillover potential of certain bat viruses by using the DNA backbone of a bat coronavirus and then combining that with genes coded with spike proteins with affinities for human cells. And much of that research was subcontracted to Dr. Shi Zhengli, the “bat lady.” That relationship was disclosed in the grant proposals.
In an ill-timed interview given by Dr. Daszak on December 9, 2019, before the Covid-19 outbreak was generally known, he describes “in glowing terms how researchers at WIV had been reprogramming the spike protein and generating chimeric coronaviruses [i.e., ones combining genetic material from different sources] capable of infecting humanized mice.” Some of them, he noted, can cause SARS disease untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals and incapable of being vaccinated against. (See the widely discussed “Origin of Covid – Following the Clues,” by Nicholas Wade, a science writer for the New York Times for nearly three decades.)
And yet that same Daszak was the organizer and principal author of a February 19, 2020 letter that appeared in the respected Lancet medical journal, signed by 27 scientists, in which the signatories “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.” As Doidge puts it, Daszak was “basically absolving himself.”
The Lancet letter asserted that the “Chinese had shown rapid, open and transparent sharing of data.” That was simply false, as Doidge documents. It would be another year before a WHO organization team was allowed into China to investigate the origins of SARS2. Dr. Ai Fen, head of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, examined many of the first SARS2 patients and wrote about it in China’s People. Within hours, the article disappeared; then Dr. Ai Fen disappeared.
Immediately after the outbreak of SARS2, General Chen Wei, the chief bioweapons specialist of the Chinese army, which, according to a January 15, 2021 statement of the U.S. State Department, maintained secret projects with the WIV, was dispatched to WIV to investigate. Subsequently, key viral samples from the WIV disappeared, and the Chinese even admitted to destroying some as a precaution against their escaping from the lab. Chinese authorities, writes Wade, suppressed all records at WIV and closed down its viral databases.
No blood samples of the three WIV lab workers that U.S. intelligence says were admitted to the hospital with Covid-19-like symptoms early in the outbreak have ever been provided by the Chinese. Nor have they even admitted that they exist. Huang Yanling, a student at WIV, believed by some to be patient zero, has disappeared. The Chinese government first denied that she was a student at WIV, until her name turned up on an old WIV website.
Yet the dubious Lancet letter authored by Dr. Daszak provided much of the basis for the mainstream media to pillory Senator Tom Cotton as having repeating a “coronavirus fringe theory that scientists have disputed” (Washington Post, February 17, 2020). Post writer Paulina Firozi described Cotton as promoting a “debunked” coronavirus “conspiracy theory.”
At a January 30, 2020 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Senator Cotton challenged the theory originally propounded by the Chinese government that SARS2 had originated in contaminated animals sold at a Wuhan wet market. He did so citing statistics from a January 24 Lancet article that concluded that at least 14 of the original cases could not be traced to any connection to the Wuhan wet market. Before he spoke, the Lancet conclusions had already formed the basis of articles in the New York Times and Vox. All that Cotton had added was to note that Wuhan is home to China’s “only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens.” He did not claim to have evidence that the deadly virus had come from WIV.
(Incidentally, candidate Joe Biden published a January 27 USA Today op-ed, in which he wrote that if he were president, he would not be “taking China’s word for it” about how the outbreak began and would demand access for American scientists.)
Yet Facebook and other social media platforms moved to limit users suspected of sharing false or misleading statements and questioning that the virus had developed naturally.
IN FACT, there was never anything like a scientific consensus on the origins of the SARS2 virus. Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute, was interviewed in Boston Magazine in September 2020 on her view that the virus had leaked from the Wuhan lab. Evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein advocated for that view almost from the start. And in January of this year, New York Magazine ran a story on the lab leak theory. When Matt Yglesias tweeted derisively about the story, a number of research scientists contacted him to let him know that many in the scientific community thought the lab leak scenario entirely plausible.
Nicholas Wade’s May article cited above compares the two major hypotheses – natural evolution, accompanied by species jump, versus the lab leak theory – and finds the latter far more likely for four crucial reasons. And that is apart from the circumstantial evidence of China’s lack of transparency with respect to the work being done in WIV.
The first point in favor of genetic engineering and against natural evolution is the proximity of the outbreak to WIV. The nearest bat caves from which coronaviruses have developed are a thousand miles from Wuhan, and the bats would have already been hibernating by the time the SARS2 broke out. How could the bat virus have gotten from those caves to Wuhan without infecting any animals or people along the way? And indeed, there is no evidence that they did. But if the virus was engineered in a lab in Wuhan, its proximity to the center of the outbreak is just what one would expect.
Second, there is no evolutionary history of SARS2 from bats to animals to humans as there was with SARS1 and MERS. With SARS1, scientists were able, within a few months of the virus’s identification, to trace six mutations before the virus was able to infect civets, and another 14 mutations before it became a highly infective pathogen in humans. There is no such history with respect to SARS2, and not because no one is looking. The Chinese have already checked 80,000 animals for any signs of the SARS2 virus.
Instead, the SARS2 virus seems to have entered the world well-adapted to infect humans. That makes complete sense if it was grown in humanized mice or lab cultures of human cells, as described in Dr. Daszak’s grant proposals.
Third, the SARS2 virus possesses a structure known as the furin cleavage site, which greatly increases the infectivity of the virus. No SARS-related beta-coronavirus has a furin cleavage site other than SARS2. Furthermore, the furin cleavage site involves four amino acids all together at just the right place. Mutations – essentially “copying errors,” – are much more likely to affect a single amino acid, not four together.
At least eleven experiments adding a furin site to make a virus more infective, including some by Dr. Zhengli Shi, are published in the open literature, notes Dr. Steven Quay, a biotech entrepreneur who has investigated the origins of SARS2.
The fourth reason for preferring the genetic engineering theory, argues Wade, is the condons (groups of three DNA units) used to produce amino acids. There are more possible condons (64) than amino acids (20), which means that some amino acids are created by more than one condon. Which condon produces a particular amino acid varies from species to species.
At the furin cleavage cite in SARS2 is a double condon CGG-CGG for arginine (an amino acid), which is found in no other beta-coronavirus. CGG condons for arginine are preferred by human cells, but no double CGG triads have been found in a beta-coronovirus, and only 5% of the arginine condons in SARS2 itself are CGG.
“When I first saw the furin cleavage site in the viral sequence, with its arginine condons, I said to my wife it was the smoking gun for the origin of the virus,” says David Baltimore, an eminent virologist and former president of Caltech. “These features make a powerful challenge to the idea of a natural origin for SARS2.”
The final element of the mix is the known deficiencies in safety procedures at the WIV lab. A State Department inspection team in 2018 – remember: WIV was receiving U.S. government funding – found a lack of trained technicians in the lab. Photos of workers in the lab, since scrubbed, showed them working under the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 laboratory – roughly the equivalent of a dentist’s office. And Dr. Shi’s grant requests specify that the experiments will be carried out under BSL2 or BSL3 safety conditions, not under the cumbersome requirements of BSL4 labs designed to prevent infection by the most dangerous pathogens, such as SARS2.
At this point, it is fair to say that the likeliest scenario for the emergence of SARS2 is that it is the result of genetic engineering at the WIV, and that research was, at least in part, funded by the NIAID, headed by Dr. Fauci, and carried out under minimal safety precautions.
The type of GoF research conducted at WIV and dozens of other labs around the world ultimately strikes one as science gone mad, almost as if scientists feel compelled to utilize all the genetic engineering techniques at their disposal.
Worse yet, according to Marc Lipsitch, director of the Center for Communicable Diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health and co-founder of the Cambridge Working Group of scientists opposed to GoF research, all the GoF research to date has “given us some modest scientific knowledge and done almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemics, and yet risked creating an accidental pandemic.” Lipsitch adds that lab leaks of deadly pathogens, such as ebola and anthrax, have been far more common than we would wish to believe.
Doidge lists in “A Plague on Both Our Houses” the five conditions that would have to be met to justify GoF research: 1) scientists will find therapeutics from the research that justify the risk; 2) no leakages from labs; 3) no mad or mercenary scientists; 4) no countries will ever use the viruses created to cause mass death to enemies; and 5) a biological arms race will not be triggered. Unfortunately, at present, none of those five, much less all of them, can be guaranteed.