A recent report by The Intercept revealed that a US-based organization funded a research proposal in 2018 to study coronaviruses in bats and humans in China, but the proposal was rejected by the US government due to safety and ethical concerns. The documents also showed that some scientists were worried about the potential risks of conducting such experiments in a Chinese lab that had a history of safety violations. The report has reignited the controversy over the origins of COVID-19 and the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in the pandemic.
Documents Reveal Safety Concerns Surrounding Chinese Lab
The Intercept obtained more than 900 pages of documents related to a grant proposal submitted by EcoHealth Alliance, a US-based non-profit organization that studies emerging diseases, to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2018. The proposal, titled “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence”, aimed to investigate the diversity and spillover potential of coronaviruses in bats and humans in China, and to develop strategies to prevent and respond to future outbreaks. The proposal involved collaboration with several Chinese institutions, including the WIV, which is known for its research on bat coronaviruses.
However, the proposal was rejected by the NIH’s Potential Pandemic Pathogens Control and Oversight (P3CO) committee, which reviews research that involves enhancing the transmissibility or virulence of pathogens that could cause a pandemic. The committee cited several reasons for its decision, such as the lack of a clear benefit for public health, the ethical issues of sampling human subjects without informed consent, and the insufficient biosafety measures at the Chinese labs.
The documents also revealed that some scientists who reviewed the proposal expressed concerns about the safety and security of the WIV, which had been previously criticized by the US State Department for its inadequate biosafety standards and lack of transparency. One reviewer wrote that the WIV had a “checkered track record” and that there was a risk of accidental or intentional release of the viruses from the lab. Another reviewer questioned the rationale of creating novel coronaviruses that could infect humans and potentially cause a pandemic.
Controversy Surrounding COVID-19 Origins
The report by The Intercept has added fuel to the ongoing debate over the origins of COVID-19, which has killed more than 5 million people worldwide since its emergence in late 2019. The most widely accepted theory is that the virus originated from a natural spillover event, where an animal host transmitted the virus to humans, possibly through an intermediate species or a wet market. However, some experts have also suggested the possibility that the virus escaped from a lab, either accidentally or deliberately, and that the WIV may have been involved in its creation or manipulation.
The lab leak theory has been dismissed by many scientists and officials as a conspiracy theory, but it has also gained support from some prominent figures, such as former US President Donald Trump, who accused China of covering up the outbreak and blamed the WIV for unleashing the virus. The theory has also been fueled by the lack of conclusive evidence for the natural origin theory, the secrecy and resistance of the Chinese government to cooperate with international investigations, and the discovery of previous incidents of lab leaks of dangerous pathogens in China and elsewhere.
The controversy has also raised questions about the conflict of interests and the credibility of some of the researchers and organizations involved in the coronavirus research, such as EcoHealth Alliance and its president, Peter Daszak, who has been a vocal defender of the natural origin theory and a critic of the lab leak theory. Daszak was also part of the World Health Organization (WHO) team that visited China in early 2021 to investigate the origins of COVID-19, but the team faced criticism for its limited access and its reliance on Chinese data and sources. The team concluded that the lab leak theory was “extremely unlikely”, but the WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, later said that the theory needed further investigation and that all hypotheses remained open.
Leaked Grant Proposal and High-Risk Coronavirus Research
The leaked grant proposal by EcoHealth Alliance also shed light on the type and extent of the research that was being conducted at the WIV and other Chinese labs on bat coronaviruses. The proposal described several experiments that involved collecting and analyzing samples from bats and humans, identifying and characterizing novel coronaviruses, and testing their infectivity and pathogenicity in animal models and human cells. The proposal also mentioned the use of genetic engineering techniques, such as reverse genetics and synthetic biology, to create and modify coronaviruses.
Some of the experiments described in the proposal fall under the category of gain-of-function (GOF) research, which involves enhancing the transmissibility, virulence, or host range of pathogens to understand their potential to cause disease and to develop vaccines and therapeutics. GOF research is considered to be high-risk and controversial, as it could also increase the likelihood of accidental or intentional release of the pathogens, or their misuse for bioterrorism or biowarfare. GOF research on influenza viruses has been banned or restricted in some countries, such as the US and the Netherlands, due to safety and ethical concerns.
The proposal also raised the possibility that some of the coronaviruses that were being studied or created at the WIV or other Chinese labs could have similarities or connections to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. For instance, the proposal mentioned that one of the objectives was to test the ability of spike proteins from different bat coronaviruses to bind to human receptors, such as ACE2, which is the main entry point for SARS-CoV-2. The proposal also stated that one of the expected outcomes was to identify novel coronaviruses that could infect humans and cause SARS-like diseases.
These details have implications for the understanding of the origin and evolution of SARS-CoV-2, as well as the potential for its spread and adaptation. Some experts have pointed out that SARS-CoV-2 has some unusual features, such as a furin cleavage site and a high affinity for human ACE2, that suggest that it may have been artificially manipulated or enhanced in a lab. Others have argued that these features could have also arisen naturally through mutation, recombination, or selection in animal hosts or human populations.
Calls for Further Investigation
The report by The Intercept has sparked renewed calls for a thorough and independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and the role of the WIV and other Chinese labs in the pandemic. Many experts and officials have urged the Chinese government to be more transparent and cooperative and to allow full access to the relevant data, samples, and personnel. They have also demanded the release of more information and documents related to the coronavirus research that was funded by EcoHealth Alliance and other organizations, and to the review and oversight process that was conducted by the NIH and other agencies.
The investigation into the origins of COVID-19 is not only important for finding the truth and holding the responsible parties accountable but also for preventing and preparing for future pandemics. The investigation could reveal the gaps and weaknesses in the current system of scientific research and governance, and the need for more stringent and ethical standards and regulations for conducting and funding high-risk and controversial research, such as GOF research. The investigation could also influence the level of trust and confidence in the scientific community and the government authorities, and their ability to respond effectively and responsibly to public health emergencies.