When US President Joe Biden asked the United States Intelligence Community to determine the origin of COVID-19, its conclusion was remarkably understated but nonetheless shocking. In a one-page summary, the IC made clear that it could not rule out the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) emerged from a laboratory.
But even more shocking for Americans and the world is an additional point on which the IC remained mum: If the virus did indeed result from laboratory research and experimentation, it was almost certainly created with US biotechnology and know-how that had been made available to researchers in China.
To learn the complete truth about the origins of COVID-19, we need a full, independent investigation not only into the outbreak in Wuhan, China, but also into the relevant US scientific research, international outreach, and technology licensing in the lead-up to the pandemic.
We recently called for such an investigation in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some might dismiss our reasons for doing so as a “conspiracy theory.” But let us be crystal clear: If the virus did emerge from a laboratory, it almost surely did so accidentally in the normal course of research, possibly going undetected via asymptomatic infection.
It is of course also still possible that the virus had a natural origin. The bottom line is that nobody knows. That is why it is so important to investigate all the relevant information contained in databases available in the US.
Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, the US government has pointed an accusatory finger at China. But while it is true that the first observed COVID-19 cases were in Wuhan, the full story of the outbreak could involve America’s role in researching coronaviruses and in sharing its biotechnology with others around the world, including China.
US scientists who work with SARS-like coronaviruses regularly create and test dangerous novel variants with the aim of developing drugs and vaccines against them. Such “gain-of-function” research has been conducted for decades, but it has always been controversial, owing to concerns that it could result in an accidental outbreak, or that the techniques and technologies for creating new viruses could end up in the wrong hands. It is reasonable to ask whether SARS-CoV-2 owes its remarkable infectivity to this broader research effort.
Unfortunately, US authorities have sought to suppress this very question. Early in the epidemic, a small group of virologists queried by the US National Institutes of Health told the NIH leadership that SARS-CoV-2 might have arisen from laboratory research, noting that the virus has unusual features that virologists in the US have been using in experiments for years – often with support from the NIH.
How do we know what NIH officials were told, and when? Because we now have publicly available information released by the NIH in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. We know that on February 1, 2020, the NIH held a conference call with a group of top virologists to discuss the possible origin of the virus. On that call, several of the researchers pointed out that laboratory manipulation of the virus was not only possible, but according to some, even likely. At that point, the NIH should have called for an urgent independent investigation. Instead, the NIH has sought to dismiss and discredit this line of inquiry.
Heads in the Sand
Within days of the February 1 call, a group of virologists, including some who were on it, prepared the first draft of a paper on the “Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2.” The final draft was published a month later, in March 2020. Despite the initial observations on February 1 that the virus showed signs of possible laboratory manipulation, the March paper concluded that there was overwhelming evidence that it had emerged from nature.
The authors claimed that the virus could not possibly have come from a laboratory because “the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.” Yet the single footnote (number 20) backing up that key claim refers to a paper from 2014, which means that the authors’ supposedly “irrefutable evidence” was at least five years out of date.
Owing to their refusal to support an independent investigation of the lab-leak hypothesis, the NIH and other US federal government agencies have been subjected to a wave of FOIA requests from a range of organizations, including US Right to Know and The Intercept. These FOIA disclosures, as well as internet searches and “whistleblower” leaks, have revealed some startling information.
Consider, for example, a March 2018 grant proposal submitted to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) by EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) and researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and the University of North Carolina (UNC). On page 11, the applicants explain in detail how they intend to alter the genetic code of bat coronaviruses to insert precisely the feature that is the most unusual part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Although DARPA did not approve this grant, the work may have proceeded anyway. We just don’t know. But, thanks to another FOIA request, we do know that this group carried out similar gain-of-function experiments on another coronavirus, the one that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
In yet other cases, FOIA disclosures have been heavily redacted, including a remarkable effort to obscure 290 pages of documents going back to February 2020, including the Strategic Plan for COVID-19 Research drafted that April by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Such extensive redactions deeply undermine public trust in science, and have only served to invite additional urgent questions from researchers and independent investigators.
The Facts of the Case
Here are ten things that we do know.
First, the SARS-CoV-2 genome is distinguished by a particular 12-nucleotide sequence (the genetic code) that serves to increase its infectivity. The specific amino acid sequence directed by this insertion has been much discussed and is known as a furin cleavage site (FCS).
Second, the FCS has been a target of cutting-edge research since 2006, following the original SARS outbreak of 2003-04. Scientists have long understood that the FCS holds the key to these viruses’ infectivity and pathophysiology.
Third, SARS-CoV-2 is the only virus in the family of SARS-like viruses (sarbecoviruses) known to have an FCS. Interestingly, the specific form of the FCS that is present in SARS-CoV-2 (eight amino acids encoded by 24 nucleotides) is shared with a human sodium channel that has been studied in US labs.
Fourth, the FCS was already so well known as a driver of transmissibility and virulence that a group of US scientists submitted a proposal to the US government in 2018 to study the effect of inserting an FCS into SARS-like viruses found in bats. Although the dangers of this kind of work have been highlighted for some time, these bat viruses were somehow considered to be in a lower-risk category. This exempted them from NIH gain-of-function guidelines, thereby enabling NIH-funded experiments to be carried out at the inadequate BSL-2 safety level.
Fifth, the NIH was a strong supporter of such gain-of-function research, much of which was performed using US-developed biotechnology and executed within an NIH-funded three-way partnership between the EHA, the WIV, and UNC.
Sixth, in 2018, a leading US scientist pursuing this research argued that laboratory manipulation was vital for drug and vaccine discovery, but that increased regulation could stymie progress. Many within the virology community continue to resist sensible calls for enhanced regulation of the most high-risk virus manipulation, including the establishment of a national regulatory body independent of the NIH.
Seventh, the virus was very likely circulating a lot earlier than the standard narrative that dates awareness of the outbreak to late December 2019. We still do not know when parts of the US government became aware of the outbreak, but some scientists were aware of the outbreak as of mid-December.
Eighth, the NIH knew as early as February 1, 2020, that the virus could have emerged as a consequence of NIH-funded laboratory research, but it did not disclose that fundamental fact to the public or to the US Congress.
Ninth, extensive sampling by Chinese authorities of animals in Wuhan wet markets and in the wild has found not a single wild animal harboring the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Despite this, there is no indication that the NIH has requested the laboratory records of US agencies, academic centers, and biotech companies involved in researching and manipulating SARS-like coronaviruses.
Tenth, the IC has not explained why at least some of the US intelligence agencies do in fact believe that a laboratory release was either the most likely or at least a possible origin of the virus.
Time for Transparency
Given the questions that remain unanswered, we are calling on the US government to conduct a bipartisan investigation. We may never understand the origin of SARS-CoV-2 without opening the books of the relevant federal agencies (including the NIH and the Department of Defense), the laboratories they support, academic institutions that store and archive viral sequence data, and biotechnology companies.
A key objective of the investigation would be to shed light on a basic question: Did US researchers undertake research or help their Chinese counterparts to undertake research to insert an FCS into a SARS-like virus, thereby playing a possible role in the creation of novel pathogens like the one that led to the current pandemic?
Investigations into COVID-19’s origins should no longer be secretive ventures led by the IC. The process must be transparent, with all relevant information being released publicly for use by independent scientific researchers. It seems clear to us that there has been a concerted effort to suppress information regarding the earliest events in the outbreak, and to hinder the search for additional evidence that is clearly available within the US. We suggest that a panel of independent researchers in relevant disciplines be created and granted access to all pertinent data in order to advise the US Congress and the public.
There is a good chance that we can learn more about the origins of this virus without waiting on China or any other country, simply by looking in the US. We believe such an inquiry is long overdue.
Neil L. Harrison is a professor at Columbia University. Jeffrey D. Sachs, University Professor at Columbia University, is Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.