It’s not yet clear whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 was created in a laboratory or emerged from nature; there is still no decisive evidence for either alternative. To find out, we have recently called for an independent and transparent investigation into the possible role that US biotechnology played in the emergence of the virus.
Americans have heard a lot about the possibility that Chinese laboratories played a role in the emergence of the pandemic, but very little about the role US organizations might have played. When President Biden tasked the US Intelligence Community with determining the origin of SARS-CoV-2, it found that either “a laboratory-associated incident” or a “natural origin” was possible. The IC said that China should cooperate more to find the truth, but did not make clear, or perhaps did not fully realize, the role that US science might have played in the origin of the virus. More important, the IC didn’t present the details of its inquiry for independent scientific scrutiny. We don’t know whether the IC’s analysis was comprehensive or superficial.
The origins of the COVID-19 pandemic remain unknown, but may have had an assist from advanced US biotechnology. We do know this: The National Institutes of Health, which funded a lot of potentially hazardous and under-regulated laboratory manipulation of SARS-like viruses, has been less than transparent. And that’s stating matters politely. The NIH has done its part to throw scientists and the public off track regarding the US-based and funded research.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is so easily transmitted because it has an unusual sequence within its genetic code that makes the virus more infectious than other related viruses (including the original SARS virus from the 2003 outbreak). The key is the presence of a so-called Furin Cleavage Site that enhances the ability of the virus to enter and infect human cells.
From the early days of the pandemic, scientists have wondered how an FCS got into the SARS-CoV-2 genome, since it is the only virus among the group of SARS-like viruses that has an FCS. Other more distant relatives, such as the virus that causes the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, have an FCS, but these other viruses are quite distant from SARS-CoV-2 in terms of evolution.
Did the FCS evolve naturally, or was it put into the virus by a laboratory manipulation? This may seem an odd question. Wouldn’t that be a very dangerous thing to do? The answer is yes, it could definitely be dangerous, especially without proper safeguards. Yet remarkably, inserting an FCS was an aim of a US-China research team, using biotechnology developed by US scientists.
In a Project DEFUSE research proposal to the US government from the University of North Carolina, the EcoHealth Alliance, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the team wrote, “We will analyze all SARSr-CoV S gene sequences for appropriately conserved proteolytic cleavage sites in S2 and for the presence of potential Furin Cleavage Sites. . . . Where clear mismatches occur, we will introduce appropriate human-specific cleavage sites and evaluate growth potential in Vero cells and HAE cultures.” Much of this work was to be carried out in a Wuhan laboratory with a low level of biosafety control.
In plain English, the researchers would look for FCS in viruses, and when they didn’t occur naturally, would insert them. Notably, the UNC-EHA-WIV team also mentioned “>180 bat SARSr-Cov strains sequenced in our prior work and not yet examined for spillover potential.” These sequences have not been made public.
Why would scientists propose such dangerous work? As one of the leaders of this research at UNC wrote in an editorial in 2018, “the study of zoonotic and human CoV [coronaviruses] outside of their natural host often times requires genetic manipulation and GOF to be useful.” GOF, meaning “gain-of-function,” is research in which the coronavirus is manipulated in the laboratory and then tested for its ability to infect cells and reproduce in tissue. It’s used in drug and vaccine development.
Now, here’s the thing: The DEFUSE proposal was rejected. But was the work undertaken anyway? We have no idea, but it is standard procedure to carry out preliminary work, or even a whole project, whether or not a particular grant is accepted. And in truth, the DEFUSE proposal is part of a much larger, and still hidden, research agenda overseen by the NIH. When the NIH was asked to release its 2020 Strategic Plan for COVID-19 Research, it did so — with all 290 pages fully blanked out.
The fact is that NIH has not told the American people, or the scientific community, what it knows about the origins of SARS-CoV-2. In a conference call call on Feb. 1, 2020, NIH leaders heard top virologists explain why the FCS in SARS-CoV-2 indicated the possibility of laboratory manipulation of the virus. Yet just a few days later, NIH encouraged a team of scientists to prepare a paper declaring a natural origin of the virus. Subsequently, NIH has resisted the release of critical documentation and dragged its feet until forced to make disclosures under Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, often providing only highly redacted materials.
The Biden administration and the scientific community need to do better. What work did NIH, DOD, and other US agencies fund that might have contributed to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2? When did agencies of the USG first learn of the virus? What evidence might there be in the United States in the form of laboratory notes, electronic communications, virus databases, and other troves of information, that can shed light on this matter? Why did some components of the Intelligence Community lean toward a laboratory release as the source of the pandemic?
There has been enough obfuscation and foot-dragging. Let’s open the books and get the facts from US organizations to see what light they can shed on the origin of this tragic global disaster.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is university professor at Columbia University. Neil L. Harrison is a professor at Columbia University.