Dangerous pathogens are captured in the wild and made deadlier in government biowarfare labs. Did that happen here?
This is an important article that should be read in full at the URL given.
Did this virus come from a lab? Maybe not — but it exposes the threat of a biowarfare arms race
Salon.com, 24 Apr 2020
[links to sources at this URL]
* Dangerous pathogens are captured in the wild and made deadlier in government biowarfare labs. Did that happen here?
There has been no scientific finding that the novel coronavirus was bioengineered, but its origins are not entirely clear. Deadly pathogens discovered in the wild are sometimes studied in labs — and sometimes made more dangerous. That possibility, and other plausible scenarios, have been incorrectly dismissed in remarks by some scientists and government officials, and in the coverage of most major media outlets.
Regardless of the source of this pandemic, there is considerable documentation that a global biological arms race going on outside of public view could produce even more deadly pandemics in the future.
While much of the media and political establishment have minimized the threat from such lab work, some hawks on the American right like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., have singled out Chinese biodefense researchers as uniquely dangerous.
But there is every indication that U.S. lab work is every bit as threatening as that in Chinese labs. American labs also operate in secret, and are also known to be accident-prone.
The current dynamics of the biological arms race have been driven by U.S. government decisions that extend back decades. In December 2009, Reuters reported that the Obama administration was refusing even to negotiate the possible monitoring of biological weapons.
Much of the left in the U.S. now appears unwilling to scrutinize the origin of the pandemic — or the wider issue of biowarfare — perhaps because portions of the anti-Chinese right have been so vocal in making unfounded allegations.
Governments that participate in such biological weapon research generally distinguish between "biowarfare" and "biodefense", as if to paint such "defense" programs as necessary. But this is rhetorical sleight-of-hand; the two concepts are largely indistinguishable.
"Biodefense" implies tacit biowarfare, breeding more dangerous pathogens for the alleged purpose of finding a way to fight them. While this work appears to have succeeded in creating deadly and infectious agents, including deadlier flu strains, such "defense" research is impotent in its ability to defend us from this pandemic.
The legal scholar who drafted the main U.S. law on the subject, Francis Boyle, warned in his 2005 book "Biowarfare and Terrorism" that an "illegal biological arms race with potentially catastrophic consequences" was underway, largely driven by the U.S. government.
For years, many scientists have raised concerns regarding bioweapons/biodefense lab work, and specifically about the fact that huge increases in funding have taken place since 9/11. This was especially true after the anthrax-by-mail attacks that killed five people in the weeks after 9/11, which the FBI ultimately blamed on a U.S. government biodefense scientist. A 2013 study found that biodefense funding since 2001 had totaled at least $78 billion, and more has surely been spent since then. This has led to a proliferation of laboratories, scientists and new organisms, effectively setting off a biological arms race.
Following the Ebola outbreak in west Africa in 2014, the U.S. government paused funding for what are known as "gain-of-function" research on certain organisms. This work actually seeks to make deadly pathogens deadlier, in some cases making pathogens airborne that previously were not. With little notice outside the field, the pause on such research was lifted in late 2017.
During this pause, exceptions for funding were made for dangerous gain-of-function lab work. This included work jointly done by U.S. scientists from the University of North Carolina, Harvard and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This work — which had funding from USAID and EcoHealth Alliance not originally acknowledged — was published in 2015 in Nature Medicine.
A different Nature Medicine article about the origin of the current pandemic, authored by five scientists and published on March 17, has been touted by major media outlet and some officials — including current National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins — as definitively disproving a lab origin for the novel coronavirus. That journal article, titled "The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2," stated unequivocally: "Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus." This is a subtly misleading sentence. While the scientists state that there is no known laboratory "signature" in the SARS-Cov-2 RNA, their argument fails to take account of other lab methods that could have created coronavirus mutations without leaving such a signature.
Indeed, there is also the question of conflict of interest in the Nature Medicine article. Some of the authors of that article, as well as a February 2020 Lancet letter condemning "conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin" — which seemed calculated to minimize outside scrutiny of biodefense lab work — have troubling ties to the biodefense complex, as well as to the U.S. government. Notably, neither of these articles makes clear that a virus can have a natural origin and then be captured and studied in a controlled laboratory setting before being let loose, either intentionally or accidentally — which is clearly a possibility in the case of the coronavirus.
Facts as "rumors"
This reporter raised questions about the subject at a news conference with a Center for Disease Control (CDC) representative at the now-shuttered National Press Club on Feb. 11. I asked if it was a "complete coincidence" that the pandemic had started in Wuhan, the only place in China with a declared biosafety level 4 (BSL4) laboratory. BSL4 laboratories have the most stringent safety mechanisms, but handle the most deadly pathogens. As I mentioned, it was odd that the ostensible origin of the novel coronavirus was bat caves in Yunnan province — more than 1,000 miles from Wuhan. I noted that "gain-of-function" lab work can results in more deadly pathogens, and that major labs, including some in the U.S., have had accidental releases.
CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat said that based on the information she had seen, the virus was of "zoonotic origin". She also stated, regarding gain-of-function lab work, that it is important to "protect researchers and their laboratory workers as well as the community around them and that we use science for the benefit of people".
I followed up by asking whether an alleged natural origin did not preclude the possibility that this virus came through a lab, since a lab could have acquired a bat virus and been working on it. Schuchat replied to the assembled journalists that "it is very common for rumors to emerge that can take on life of their own," but did not directly answer the question. She noted that in the 2014 Ebola outbreak some observers had pointed to nearby labs as the possible cause, claiming this "was a key rumor that had to be overcome in order to help control the outbreak". She reiterated, "So based on everything that I know right now, I can tell you the circumstances of the origin really look like animals-to-human. But your question, I heard."
This is no rumor. It's a fact: Labs work with dangerous pathogens. The U.S. and China each have dual-use biowarfare/biodefense programs. China has major facilities at Wuhan — a biosafety level 4 lab and a biosafety level 2 lab. There are leaks from labs. (See "Preventing a Biological Arms Race," MIT Press, 1990, edited by Susan Wright; also, a partial review in Journal of International Law from October 1992.)
Much of the discussion of this deadly serious subject is marred with snark that avoids or dodges the "gain-of-function" question. ABC ran a story on March 27 titled "Sorry, Conspiracy Theorists. Study Concludes COVID-19 'Is Not a Laboratory Construct.'" That story did not address the possibility that the virus could have been found in the wild, studied in a lab and then released.
On March 21, USA Today published a piece headlined "Fact Check: Did the Coronavirus Originate In a Chinese Laboratory?" — and rated it "FALSE".
That USA Today story relied on the Washington Post, which published a widely cited article on Feb. 17 headlined, "Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked." That article quoted public comments from Rutgers University professor of chemical biology Richard Ebright, but out of context and only in part. Specifically, the story quoted from Ebright's tweet that the coronavirus was not an "engineered bioweapon." In fact, his full quote included the clarification that the virus could have "entered human population through lab accident". (An email requesting clarification sent to Post reporter Paulina Firozi was met with silence.)
Bioengineered ≠ From a lab
Other pieces in the Post since then (some heavily sourced to U.S. government officials) have conveyed Ebright's thinking, but it gets worse. In a private exchange, Ebright — who, again, has said clearly that the novel coronavirus was not technically bioengineered using known coronavirus sequences — stated that other forms of lab manipulation could have been responsible for the current pandemic. This runs counter to much reporting, which is perhaps too scientifically illiterate to perceive the difference.
In response to the suggestion that the novel coronavirus could have come about through various methods besides bioengineering — made by Dr. Meryl Nass, who has done groundbreaking work on biowarfare — Ebright responded in an email:
"The genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 has no signatures of human manipulation.
"This rules out the kinds of gain-of-function (GoF) research that leave signatures of human manipulation in genome sequences (e.g., use of recombinant DNA methods to construct chimeric viruses), but does not rule out kinds of GoF research that do not leave signatures (e.g., serial passage in animals). [emphasis added]
"Very easy to imagine the equivalent of the Fouchier's "10 passages in ferrets" with H5N1 influenza virus, but, in this case, with 10 passages in non-human primates with bat coronavirus RaTG13 or bat coronavirus KP876546."
That last paragraph is very important. It refers to virologist Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, who performed research on intentionally increasing rates of viral mutation rate by spreading a virus from one animal to another in a sequence. The New York Times wrote about this in an editorial in January 2012, warning of "An Engineered Doomsday."
"Now scientists financed by the National Institutes of Health" have created a "virus that could kill tens or hundreds of millions of people" if it escaped confinement, the Times wrote. The story continued:
"Working with ferrets, the animal that is most like humans in responding to influenza, the researchers found that a mere five genetic mutations allowed the virus to spread through the air from one ferret to another while maintaining its lethality. A separate study at the University of Wisconsin, about which little is known publicly, produced a virus that is thought to be less virulent."
The word "engineering" in the New York Times headline is technically incorrect, since passing a virus through animals is not "genetic engineering." This same distinction has hindered some from understanding the possible origins of the current pandemic.
Fouchier's flu work, in which an H5N1 virus was made more virulent by transmitting it repeatedly between individual ferrets, briefly sent shockwaves through the media. "Locked up in the bowels of the medical faculty building here and accessible to only a handful of scientists lies a man-made flu virus that could change world history if it were ever set free," wrote Science magazine in 2011 in a story titled "Scientists Brace for Media Storm Around Controversial Flu Studies." It continues:
"The virus is an H5N1 avian influenza strain that has been genetically altered and is now easily transmissible between ferrets, the animals that most closely mimic the human response to flu. Scientists believe it's likely that the pathogen, if it emerged in nature or were released, would trigger an influenza pandemic, quite possibly with many millions of deaths.
"In a 17th floor office in the same building, virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center calmly explains why his team created what he says is "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make" — and why he wants to publish a paper describing how they did it. Fouchier is also bracing for a media storm. After he talked to ScienceInsider yesterday, he had an appointment with an institutional press officer to chart a communication strategy.
"Fouchier's paper is one of two studies that have triggered an intense debate about the limits of scientific freedom and that could portend changes in the way U.S. researchers handle so-called dual-use research: studies that have a potential public health benefit but could also be useful for nefarious purposes like biowarfare or bioterrorism."
Despite objections, Fouchier's article was published by Science in June 2012. Titled "Airborne Transmission of Influenza A/H5N1 Virus Between Ferrets," it summarized how Fouchier's research team made the pathogen more virulent:
"Highly pathogenic avian influenza A/H5N1 virus can cause morbidity and mortality in humans but thus far has not acquired the ability to be transmitted by aerosol or respiratory droplet ('airborne transmission') between humans. To address the concern that the virus could acquire this ability under natural conditions, we genetically modified A/H5N1 virus by site-directed mutagenesis and subsequent serial passage in ferrets. The genetically modified A/H5N1 virus acquired mutations during passage in ferrets, ultimately becoming airborne transmissible in ferrets."
In other words, Fouchier's research took a flu virus that did not exhibit airborne transmission, then infected a number of ferrets until it mutated to the point that it was transmissible by air.