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Peter Daszak, right, Thea Fischer, left, and other members of the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of COVID-19 arrive at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China’s central Hubei province on Feb. 3, 2021Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images
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A Plague on Both Our Houses

Growing indications that viral enhancement research gone awry is still in play as a possible cause of the pandemic

Norman Doidge
February 18, 2021
Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images
Peter Daszak, right, Thea Fischer, left, and other members of the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of COVID-19 arrive at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China’s central Hubei province on Feb. 3, 2021Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

The World Health Organization officials investigating the origins of the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, otherwise known as COVID-19, were finally let into China on Jan. 14, and spent two weeks “investigating.” The most contentious question was, did the virus that supposedly first infected people in a Wuhan wet market originate in one of the two virology labs close to the markets, at least one of which specialized in such viruses? The delegation discounted that, saying it was “extremely unlikely”—so unlikely that the WHO would end additional study of the matter. But the delegation revealed no evidence, or explanation, as to why they were so certain the case must be closed. The idea of a lab leak wasn’t wild speculation, it was proposed in February 2020 by two Chinese researchers when they saw that one of the Chinese virus labs was eight miles from the wet market, and another, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a mere 300 yards away. Mysteriously, their article “disappeared” from the internet (though it was retrieved using the Wayback Machine.) The other leading hypothesis was that the virus (the nearest relatives of which were known to be in bat caves about 1,000 miles away from Wuhan) jumped from an animal to human. To these two possibilities, the WHO added two more favored by the Chinese government: That it was introduced into China by people from outside the country, or that it arrived in frozen food from elsewhere, but provided little evidence for these.

Thus, the investigation went well for the Chinese government, and they made sure it did: It was delayed for a year, during which time viral evidence and witnesses disappeared. It only lasted two weeks (the committee was in quarantine two weeks), only several hours were spent in the lab in question, asking questions, not looking at samples or doing forensics, and the itinerary was controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, as, for that matter, was the committee composition, which included 17 Chinese members. “International members” included the very high profile researcher Peter Daszak, who himself closely collaborated with, and passed funding to, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and who was thus basically investigating and absolving himself. He praised those there for allowing a “Frank, open discussion.”

The Chinese participants were of course aware of what happened to physicians and researchers who spoke their minds on the issue. Chinese physicians who had sounded the alarm during the original outbreak were threatened with prison for sharing information with medical colleagues and the world. They were not interviewed. Dr. Ai Fen, head of the Emergency Department at Wuhan Central Hospital, saw many of the first cases and would have known where her patients might have been prior to getting sick. She dared to publish an article on the topic in China’s People. But the article disappeared, within hours, and then she disappeared. Censoring speech, and erasing brave people often go hand in hand. On news of the outbreak, public health officials in other countries wanted access to the original virus samples to develop therapeutics. But key samples from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were also “disappeared” over a year ago. Chinese officials even admitted to destroying some of them—as a precaution to protect the public, of course—lest the coronavirus escape from the lab. (Was there ever a more superfluous precaution taken, considering the virus was already out and about in China and had infected tens of thousands?) The WHO committee made no comment on these forensic mysteries. All this raises two questions: Why would a government eliminate evidence and witnesses, stall for a year, curate every detail, and stack the WHO investigating delegation, if a fair investigation would have shown the virus had an innocent, “natural” origin, had been introduced into China by a foreigner, or had arrived in a package of frozen food from another country? And why would the WHO go along?

There is, arguably, another way to approach this matter, which involves sorting through some of the most likely reasons the samples were destroyed and witnesses to the origins were silenced; an approach which may also help explain the WHO’s aiding and abetting such an obvious sham. It is to take into account that, among other things, the WIV lab was performing a form of research called “gain-of-function.”

If you can’t quite figure out what the term means, that is intended, because, GoF is a euphemism for a practice that might seem rather Dr. Strangelovian, and the furthest thing from forethought or prudence, or preventative medicine. It involves deliberately making viruses much more dangerous, to the point that they will cause a pandemic. “Gain-of-function” is the perfect term if you need a grant from a scientifically illiterate public composed of nervous types who, for some reason, don’t like or trust the idea of experts making invincible killer germs. “Viral-deadliness enhancement” would be a turnoff, but gain-of-function sounds like the title of a promising self-help fad. To call it a “euphemism” is a euphemism, because it is really doublespeak, like those military obfuscations such as “pacification,” which mean almost the opposite of what they appear to.

Know thine enemy is the premise underlying GoF research. Thus, in the case of viruses, it involves taking a relatively but not totally deadly one, and augmenting its lethality and its contagiousness, not just between humans, but also increasing the number of animals that might carry it and then pass it on to humans. The point is to increase its deadliness by a quantum leap, so that it could cause a pandemic. Then one studies the deadly monster in a flask, to discover its molecular Achilles heel, and get a head start, in the lab, on developing therapeutics or vaccines should a microbe “out there” mutate to become like the monstrous microbe one has created.

GoF goes on in many “advanced” countries. Science, after all, is often a collaborative effort. Thus, Newsweek reported, “The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the organization led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, funded scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other institutions for work on gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses.” The United States was not the only other donor that funded or collaborated with the civilian research going on at the lab.

Once the pandemic broke out in the very same city as that lab, the obvious question was whether or not that lab, which specialized in coronaviruses, somehow leaked, or through GoF, created the SARS-Cov-2 virus that was causing the catastrophe? That lab had already been cited by the U.S. State Department for its inadequate biosafety.

Once it became known that the United States, through Daszak’s New York-based organization, EcoHealth Alliance, which he heads, was funding WIV research, the Trump administration cut the funding. 60 Minutes ran a segment called “Pandemic Politics,” critical of the administration for cutting off his funding. It interviewed Daszak, emphasized that he was a heroic virus hunter, and made no mention that he was involved in supporting GoF research. He is also a co-author of a paper on it with Shi Zhengli, chief virologist of the WIV. A paper by Shi Zhengli and GoF researcher Dr. Ralph Baric described how they were the first to create a GoF “chimera”—i.e., an engineered bat SARS virus that could infect a human; something many scientists criticized as very dangerous. Daszak has described doing GoF research with Baric, and how it can be done “pretty easily.” That means that these scientists have also made biowarfare easier. There indeed seems to be an intimate link between the WIV and the People’s Liberation Army as well, and according to The Wall Street Journal, when talk of leakage occurred, China’s chief bioweapons specialist, Major General Chen Wei, was dispatched there to investigate. For obvious reasons, there is a major crossover between GoF and bioweapons research throughout the world, and some of the “experts” who comment on it are actually “bioweapons” experts. The first GoF research appears to have been done for various militaries (more below). Daszak, for instance, is funded not only by the NIH, but the U.S. Department of Defense as well.

But why would America fund this work in Wuhan and not do it on American soil? Because the bat caves that the viruses allegedly come from are in China. The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) had sent scientists to them, and assembled the world’s largest collection of bat viruses to study, in the hope of preventing an outbreak of some new version of SARS 1. So far, so good.

However, it is the case that GoF research is also the meat and potatoes of germ warfare, the manufacture of biological weapons and—perhaps—measures to counter them. On Jan. 15, the U.S. State Department stated:

“The United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”

Militaries could be interested in this research for offensive or defensive purposes, or for both. The United States funds “anti-terror” research through a health budget. As New York magazine reports, after Sept. 11, “Fauci’s anti-terror budget went from $53 million in 2001 to $1.7 billion in 2003.”

GoF has been controversial from the start. In 2011, two research groups, one led by Ron Fouchier from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, and one led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, announced they were working on the H5N1 avian flu virus. The virus is believed to be closely related to the one that caused the 1918 pandemic. It has a 60% mortality rate if one catches it, but this rarely happens because it is usually transmitted by direct contact with infected poultry and is not very transmissible to, or between, humans, since it can’t be passed on through the air. So the researchers decided to see if they could reengineer it into one that could cause a pandemic—and ultimately they did.

Some scientists argued this “transmission enhancement” was reckless, and could lead to an accidental pandemic. Indeed, SARS-CoV-1 had leaked several times from Chinese labs, and there have been hundreds of dangerous leakages from American labs too, including anthrax in 2014. Deadly pathogens, including active Ebola, have been shipped to insecure locations by American research labs 21 times. Others have been lost or stolen. The Cambridge Working Group, a group of American scientists who study pathogens, pointed out that accidents and leakages of deadly pathogens like anthrax, avian flu, and smallpox “have been accelerating and have been occurring on average over twice a week.”

At such a rate, calling them “accidents” is a stretch; it is not as though these researchers were trying to be sloppy with lethal microbes. A more apt phrase might be that such leakages are “to be expected.” Jumping from one cell to another is what viruses do for a living.

Whatever we may discover about the true origins, the investigation has revealed a habit in modern scientific research of risking a biological catastrophe that ought to be a matter of public concern.

Among the members of the Cambridge Working Group are Michael Osterholm, now a member of President Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, and Stanley Plotkin, one of America’s premier vaccinologists. The Cambridge group declared itself opposed to GoF research as conducted, and pointed out it had not led to the promised breakthroughs in vaccine or therapeutic development. For instance, Marc Lipsitch, the group’s co-founder and an epidemiologist who directs the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, has argued that GoF research has “given us some modest scientific knowledge and done almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemics, and yet risked creating an accidental pandemic.” One reason the promised outcomes have not occurred derives from the fact that a virus can mutate in so many different ways in nature, that it is impossible to really anticipate the actual form the next pandemic will take. This is the Achilles heel of GoF research: The deadly turns nature may take are far less predictable than GoF research assumes. It is also difficult for viruses in animals to jump to humans, because those viruses are generally not well-adapted to human beings.

In fact, the only known deaths from bioterrorism in the United States were likely caused, according to the FBI, by an American government researcher, Bruce Ivins. In 2001, after 9/11, Ivins sent the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people, allegedly in order to raise the fear of anthrax so that people would buy the vaccine for it that he had co-invented. The mad scientist eventually killed himself. But there is something rich in the fact that it was deaths caused by a government worker on a deadly pathogen that triggered more GoF research. Eventually the arguments that this work was dangerous seemed to win the day, and in 2014 the research was put under a moratorium by the United States. No such moratorium existed in China, so it continued there, full speed ahead.

In 2017, the moratorium on GoF research was reviewed in secret, and then quietly lifted by the NIH, in part because Drs. Fauci and Frances Collins, head of the NIH, did not want the funding to end, and thought it a risk worth taking. As reported in New York magazine, Dr. Fauci told a reporter, “Nature is the worst bioterrorist.”

It should be no surprise that the first reports that the SARS-CoV-2 virus had escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were minimized by many in the American research establishment (which, in part, funded such research in China), and of course by the Chinese government. It became easy to lead the public to believe that concerns that the virus might have come from the lab was just a “conspiracy theory” encouraged by President Trump. But with Trump out of office, some scientists are suddenly stating publicly that the idea is a serious possibility.

Indeed, that was the first thought of Dr. Shi Zhengli, the director of the Wuhan lab (also known as “the Bat Woman” for having collected the world’s largest supply of bat viruses) when COVID-19 first erupted in Wuhan. Given that the viruses the lab collected came from bat caves almost 1,000 miles from Wuhan, the appearance of such a virus in the city might well be linked to her lab. Some of the viruses they collected in 2012 had caused a COVID-like illness that killed six Chinese men who cleaned bat guano in a mine. She later publicly insisted no members of her lab ever got ill.

However, there are suggestions to the contrary. For instance, one of the WIV students, Huang Yanling, mysteriously disappeared, and some think she is patient zero. When this was pointed out, officials denied she was a student there, but then she was found to be listed on an old WIV website. The State Department now claims it has reason to believe that researchers at the WIV lab did develop symptoms that could be consistent with COVID-19 as early as autumn 2019. The State Department states, “This raises questions about the credibility of WIV senior researcher Shi Zhengli’s public claim that there was ‘zero infection’ among the WIV’s staff and students of SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-related viruses.”

That same State Department fact sheet also claims that, “starting in at least 2016—and with no indication of a stop prior to the COVID-19 outbreak—WIV researchers conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar).”

There are two ways to enhance pathogen contagiousness, and one is easier to trace because it involves a genetic “cut and paste.” Newsweek reported this was going on at the WIV in 2015: “They took a piece of the original SARS virus and inserted a snippet from a SARS-like bat coronavirus, resulting in a virus that is capable of infecting human cells.” Splicing is often said to be easy for an expert to detect. Yet, some serious scientists argue there is an identifiable spike protein “insert” in the virus, while others deny it. The mainstream media has generally spoken about splicing as the only way to initiate GoF and often cited scientists who claim that because the current SARS-Cov-2 virus shows no signs of splicing it could not have been “man-made.”

But that is incorrect, because there is another way to facilitate GoF, and in this case experts can’t detect human intervention by examining the new virus. The technique is called “passaging.” A typical example would involve taking the bat virus, and implanting it in a ferret, and “hoping” it mutates within that animal, and if it doesn’t, then artificially passing (“passaging”) it on, i.e., implanting it, in yet another ferret, and then another, until a mutation occurs that will make it so contagious that it can jump from one ferret to another on its own, and then, “ideally” to a human being. “Passaging,” is a well-known technique. It was tried by the Japanese Biological Warfare Unit 731 in World War II to enhance lethality by passing typhoid from one Manchurian prisoner to the next, hoping it would mutate toward greater lethality in the process. With passaging, the new more virulent virus will appear “natural” compared to a gene-spliced creation, so it is hard if not impossible to detect if it evolved in nature or was made in a lab.

So, when one reads articles like this recent one in the Christian Science Monitor that claim that “experts say it’s unlikely that the new coronavirus emerged from the lab in Wuhan and overwhelmingly say analysis of the new coronavirus’s genome rules out the possibility that it was engineered by humans,” consider that “genomic analysis” by itself simply can’t determine whether passaging—which is a form of engineering—occurred. No less an authority than The Lancet, one of the world’s premier science journals, published a statement (often quoted) in which 27 scientists, who mentioned nothing about passaging, declared with confidence: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin ...” Emails show the statement was written by the ever-present Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, and, according to New York magazine’s investigation, Daszak was the lead organizer of the statement. He was also listed as an author. The letter also claimed that Chinese counterparts had shown a “rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak.” No mention was made of passaging, GoF, or how a virus that generally resides in caves 1,000 miles away got to Wuhan, or that not all the authors were free of vested interests. They were just “experts” and those with whom they disagreed they called, “conspiracy theorists.”

Those who lack confidence in both the CCP and the WHO will be pleased to know that the esteemed Lancet also set up its own COVID-19 commission of international scientists to determine the origins of the pandemic which would be “free of political bias.” The lead investigator, who promised to leave “no stone unturned”? Peter Daszak.

So where are we? Whether or not Wuhan’s gain-of-function research, a lab leak, or both were involved in creating the SARS-CoV-2 virus is now extremely difficult for outsiders to ascertain. The WHO visit that occurred involved two hours of interviews and no specimen analysis, since key WIV samples were gone. Virologist and corona vaccine researcher Nikolai Petrovsky, professor of medicine at Flinders University in South Australia, has said that it is “simply not credible” that the WIV would have failed to study the virus until it had used up all its samples. He argues it is unusual that a natural virus would emerge, and so suddenly be able to adapt to infecting humans. The scene, which may have been a crime scene, was controlled by China and received no forensic analysis. Yuri Deigin has made a list of the data that we already know has gone missing from the WIV. One would have to be hopelessly naïve to believe that the nontransparency we have witnessed was not systematically coordinated, and not, in that sense, about as close to conspiracy as one meets in the definition: “An agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful or subversive act.”

And it has so far been successful, because we still do not know the origins of the virus, or if it was natural or human-made. That scientists, in the name of science, are calling the behavior of China “open, and transparent,” shows they care not a wit for the truth or the long-term reputation of science.

But China is not the only entity with a motive to blur the record on what went on in Wuhan. Western virologists and government bodies involved in GoF research, including the NIH—especially those with direct connections to the work going on at the Wuhan lab—may think they have a clear interest in shutting down the investigation, declaring the virus’s origin is natural, and dismissing alternative hypotheses as “conspiracies.” This is extremely dangerous because understanding the true origin of the virus provides an avenue into better understanding therapeutics, and preventive medicine going forward.

Whatever we may discover about the true origins, the investigation has revealed a habit in modern scientific research of risking a biological catastrophe, that ought to be a matter of public concern. For GoF to be safe, all the following assumptions must be true: Scientists will be always able to find therapeutics which justify the risk of creating these constantly mutating flask monsters; that there will never be lab accidents that lead to leakages; the scientists themselves will never go mad, and unleash the organisms, or become mercenary, and sell their knowledge to the highest bidder; the scientists’ political masters will never use this knowledge to cause mass death of enemies, having found a therapeutic or vaccine, to protect themselves; that a biological arms race will not be unleashed, causing the previous risks to multiply, and that once initiated, this kind of research could be regulated. In other words, the time to regulate this practice was at its inception: Just don’t do it. Closing the lid of Pandora’s box after the demons have escaped is a pointless exercise in managerial vanity.

Yet we continue with GoF, because the mad science fantasy that we can play with nature with impunity, which has become a major strain of modern science, as I’ve recently described, can never resist going too far, so, if not this time, maybe next time: A plague on both our houses.

Norman Doidge, a contributing writer for Tablet, is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and author of The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing.