With the long-awaited announcement on May 13 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that fully vaccinated people can resume a normal life, increased attention is now focused on the origins of COVID-19, a disease that has killed an estimated 3 million people around the world.
On May 21, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced Senate Amendment 1707 which would ban the National Institutes of Health or any federal agency from funding any so-called “gain-of-function” research in China. Gain-of-function research aims to understand natural-occurring pathogens in animals by developing them into strains that would be more virulent in humans.
“We don’t know whether the pandemic started in a lab in Wuhan or evolved naturally,” stated Paul in a news release. “While Washington bureaucrats deny funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan, experts believe otherwise. My amendment will ensure that this never happens in the future.”
During a May 11 Senate hearing, a testy exchange between Paul (R-Ky.) and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), revealed the degree of the mistrust and anxiety surrounding the responsibility for the pandemic’s outbreak and spread.
Addressing widespread reports that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), of which NIAID is a part, funneled money to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology for gain-of-function research, Paul, a medical doctor, asked Fauci if he still supports “NIH funding for the lab in Wuhan?” Responding, Fauci said, “Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect … the NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute.”
The following day, Paul told Fox News that Fauci’s claims were “verifiably false” and that Fauci, who headed NIAID at a time when it funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan lab, was “worried about culpability.”
The Wuhan lab, and U.S. funding for bat-related research there, are at the center of a controversy that has been raging for 16 months.
Two predominant theories about the origin of the virus have emerged: 1. That it somehow escaped the Wuhan lab where high-risk, gain-of-function research on enhancing the ability of bat viruses to attack humans was conducted (lab theory) and 2. That the virus was transmitted to humans from cave-dwelling bats in southern China via another animal sold for food at Wuhan’s wet market (natural emergence theory). There is also a third theory, advanced by University of Glasgow virologist David Robertson, according to which the virus jumped directly from a bat to a human without passing through an intermediary animal.
Initially, the natural emergence theory gained favor among virologists and the mainstream media, while the lab theory was largely dismissed as conspiratorial. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” a group of virologists and others wrote in the Lancet on February 19, 2020. The authors added that scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.”
As noted by science writer Nicholas Wade in a lengthy analysis in Medium (April 21), it later turned out that the Lancet letter was organized by a virologist, Peter Daszak, Ph.D., president of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance. Wade notes that Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which he calls an “acute conflict of interest” not revealed to Lancet readers. Wade adds that if the virus did indeed escape the Wuhan lab,” Daszak would potentially culpable.”
On March 17, 2020, another public letter debunking the lab theory appeared in the journal Nature Medicine. In the letter, Kristian G. Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute and four other virologists stated: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV–2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
The two letters and the publicity they generated formed the prevailing narrative on the origin of COVID-19 until the NIAID’s role in funding the bat research in Wuhan was revealed, prompting a deeper inquiry into the subject. Directing the research in the Wuhan lab was (and still is) Dr. Shi Zheng-Li, the “bat lady,” who, Wade notes “set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells.” This exercise presumably carried out to get in front of the science so as to better confront a future coronavirus, carried enormous risks.
Conditions at the Wuhan Lab
Concerns about biosafety at the Wuhan lab have circulated for years. Inspectors from the U.S. State Department had visited the lab in January 2018 and stated in a cable, the lab “has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators to safely operate this high-contaminant laboratory.” Further suspicions have been raised because Dr. Shi’s records remained sealed, even during a high-profile World Health Organization (WHO) mission to China earlier this year to uncover the origin of the virus.
Meanwhile, the failure of Chinese researchers to identify either the original bat population from which the virus jumped or the intermediate host species that transmitted the disease to humans has undermined the natural emergence theory.
Robert Redfield, M.D., who headed the CDC during the Trump administration, has also come around to the lab theory. “It’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect the laboratory worker,” Redfield told CNN on March 27.
In early April, the NIH acknowledged that a board created within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to scrutinize funding of potentially dangerous research did not review the NIAID grant that was awarded to the Wuhan lab via Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance. Chinese authorities have let it be known that discussions about the role of the Wuhan lab are unwelcome.
Open Letter by Scientists
In an open letter published May 13 in Science, a group of 18 scientists called conclusions in an investigation into the Wuhan lab by the World Health Institute “premature” and pointed out that only 4 pages of the 313-page report discussed the lab theory.
“A proper investigation should be transparent, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest,” wrote the authors, which included the virologist Ralph Baric, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina, who has worked with the lab in Wuhan.
“It takes courage and integrity to deal directly with countries such as China where moral concerns and bioethics in medical and scientific research are dangerously lacking,” says Miles Yu, Ph. D., former principal China advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and fellow at the Hudson Institute, Hoover Institution, and 2149 Institute. “Unfortunately, some of our key public health officials and private research leaders are corrupted by the allure of the immoral research system of China, through lies and collusion with the PRC propaganda apparatus to whitewash their complicity in the COVID catastrophe and perpetuate untruths, at the expense of public health and the future well-being of the world.”
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D., (email@example.com) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.