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Head of Wuhan lab and University of N Carolina expert warned ‘gain of function’ research ‘too risky’


A 2015 report written by the head of the Wuhan virology lab and a University of North Carolina expert warned of the immense danger posed by ‘gain of function’ research and said it was ‘too risky to pursue’, it has been revealed.

The paper was uncovered by a small team of investigators working to identify the origins of the COVID-19, and was commissioned by Matthew Pottinger, the deputy National Security Adviser during the Trump presidency.

They were tasked with investigating the Wuhan ‘lab leak’ theory, suggesting that the virus was man-made rather than naturally evolved. The theory had been dismissed by many within the scientific community, but was wholeheartedly embraced by Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, his Secretary of State.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top public health official, has in recent weeks become the focus of Republican anger in discussions around the pandemic, after he initially emphasized the scientific consensus that the ‘lab leak’ theory was unlikely – to the anger of Trump. He has since said it is possible. Many Republicans are calling for him to resign over what they believe is a lack of transparency about what he knew, when.  

On Thursday Vanity Fair reported that the team had unearthed the 2015 report, written by 15 authors including Wuhan Institute of Virology’s lead coronavirus researcher, Shi Zhengli, and an epidemiologist from the University of North Carolina, Ralph Baric.

Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli is seen inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, capital of China’s Hubei province, on February 23, 2017. She co-authored a 2015 report into their research on coronaviruses, and ‘gain of function’ experiments. The report, unearthed by a team working within the Trump White House, expressed concern at the threat posed by the research

Ralph Baric, researcher and lab leader at North Carolina's Gillings School of Global Public Health, was another co-author of the report. There are only three places in the world where 'gain of function' research is carried out: Wuhan, Baric's lab in North Carolina, and Texas

Ralph Baric, researcher and lab leader at North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, was another co-author of the report. There are only three places in the world where ‘gain of function’ research is carried out: Wuhan, Baric’s lab in North Carolina, and Texas

The 2015 paper in Nature Medicine warned of the risks of 'gain of function' research, and said that its benefits needed to be very carefully evaluated before proceeding

The 2015 paper in Nature Medicine warned of the risks of ‘gain of function’ research, and said that its benefits needed to be very carefully evaluated before proceeding

Published in a scientific journal, Nature Medicine, the paper was entitled: A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence.

In it, the authors wrote about the dangers of ‘gain of function’ research – a controversial exploration of how to make viruses more lethal and transmissible, in a bid to better understand them. Opponents of the research – including Barack Obama, who ruled out funding for the research when he was president – say that it creates dangerous pathogens, which could accidentally or otherwise be unleashed on the world.

‘On the basis of these findings, scientific review panels may deem similar studies building chimeric viruses based on circulating strains too risky to pursue, as increased pathogenicity in mammalian models cannot be excluded,’ warned the authors, emphasizing that their own research was potentially dangerous.

‘The potential to prepare for and mitigate future outbreaks must be weighed against the risk of creating more dangerous pathogens.

‘In developing policies moving forward, it is important to consider the value of the data generated by these studies and whether these types of chimeric virus studies warrant further investigation versus the inherent risks involved.’

Donald Trump, seen on May 18 in Manhattan, was an enthusiastic supporter of the 'lab leak' theory. His critics accused him of being racist: he has said he now feels vindicated

Donald Trump, seen on May 18 in Manhattan, was an enthusiastic supporter of the ‘lab leak’ theory. His critics accused him of being racist: he has said he now feels vindicated

The study was intended to raise an alarm and warn the world of ‘a potential risk of SARS-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently circulating in bat populations.’

Their discovery suggests that the idea of a virus escaping from the lab is not at all far-fetched, and Vanity Fair reported that the Wuhan lab had had several previous security scares. 

The paper’s authors said that they had received funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and from EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit, which had parceled out grant money from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Specializing in investigating viruses and whether the next pandemic could come from animals, EcoHealth Alliance is run by Peter Daszak, a British zoologist.

Trump ordered in April 2020 that a grant to EcoHealth Alliance from the NIH be ended, after he was asked by a Newsmax reporter why the U.S. was paying for research in China.

Peter Daszak is seen sitting in the front passenger seat on arrival at the Wuhan lab on February 3. He was part of a World Health Organization team that was sent to China to investigate the origins of COVID-19. The head of the WHO complained after their visit that they were only allowed three hours inside the lab, and were not granted full access to all they needed

Peter Daszak is seen sitting in the front passenger seat on arrival at the Wuhan lab on February 3. He was part of a World Health Organization team that was sent to China to investigate the origins of COVID-19. The head of the WHO complained after their visit that they were only allowed three hours inside the lab, and were not granted full access to all they needed

The Wuhan lab is now the focus of interest in determining where the outbreak began

The Wuhan lab is now the focus of interest in determining where the outbreak began

Fauci, the head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has in recent weeks been pressed by Congress about the funding, and insisted that it was necessary to study bats in China, because that’s where the particular species thought to carry coronaviruses lives.

Pottinger told Vanity Fair that the U.S. officials had been too hasty to dismiss the ‘lab leak’ theory, and did not pay enough attention to the work of his team.

The team were hampered by Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of the theory, which critics said was simply a racist way of scapegoating another country, and distracting from his own administration’s failures.

Pottinger (center) is seen with Trump and the then-White House chief of staff, John Kelly, in November 2017. Pottinger coordinated a team of researchers at the National Security Council to investigate the origins of COVID-19, despite opposition from scientists and the media

Pottinger (center) is seen with Trump and the then-White House chief of staff, John Kelly, in November 2017. Pottinger coordinated a team of researchers at the National Security Council to investigate the origins of COVID-19, despite opposition from scientists and the media 

Anthony Fauci is currently under fire for his initial downplaying of the 'lab leak' theory. He has now said it is indeed possible. Republicans are calling for his resignation as Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, insisting that his judgement is flawed. He insists he has been following the science, and the science has evolved

Anthony Fauci is currently under fire for his initial downplaying of the ‘lab leak’ theory. He has now said it is indeed possible. Republicans are calling for his resignation as Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, insisting that his judgement is flawed. He insists he has been following the science, and the science has evolved

A statement was issued on April 30, 2020, by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence downplaying the ‘lab leak’ theory.

Pottinger said it was a mistake.

‘It was pure panic,’ he said.

‘They were getting flooded with queries. Someone made the unfortunate decision to say, ‘We basically know nothing, so let’s put out the statement.’

The magazine reported that Zhengli, the Wuhan virologist, seemed to have been unforthcoming with what she knew about possible origins of the pandemic.

They also reported that Daszak – who firmly believed in the value of the Wuhan lab’s work – was the orchestrator a February 19, 2020 statement signed by 27 scientists condemning the ‘lab leak’ theory.

The statement, published in scientific journal The Lancet, expressed ‘solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China’.

‘We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,’ the scientists said, effectively silencing questions about whether the ‘lab leak’ theory should be given more credence.

REVEALED: State Department staff warned officials NOT to investigate Wuhan lab’s gain-of-function research because it would ‘open a can of worms’ and expose US funding

Career staffers at the State Department ‘warned’ officials not to investigate the possibility that COVID-19 leaked from a Wuhan lab, fearing it would expose U.S. funding for gain-of-function research there, according to a new report.

Thomas DiNanno, former acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance raised the concern in a memo reported by Vanity Fair on Thursday. 

DiNanno wrote that staff from two bureaus, his own and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, ‘warned’ leaders ‘not to pursue an investigation into the origin of COVID-19’ because it would ‘open a can of worms’ if it continued. 

In one State Department meeting, officials say colleagues explicitly told them not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to the U.S. taxpayer funds that were supporting the work.

Gain-of-function research is a controversial field that involves collecting dangerous viruses and genetically modifying them to be more deadly, in order to study the risks of future outbreaks.

Richard H. Ebright, a professor at Rutgers, has compared the field of gain-of-function research to ‘looking for a gas leak with a lighted match.’

State Department officials say they were warned not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology's (above) gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to U.S. government funding of it

State Department officials say they were warned not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (above) gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to U.S. government funding of it

The new report examining the behind-the-scenes battle over COVID’s origins follows new evidence to support the theory that the coronavirus pandemic may have leaked from WIV — raising questions about why the possibility wasn’t investigated more thoroughly from the outset. 

‘The story of why parts of the U.S. government were not as curious as many of us think they should have been is a hugely important one,’ David Feith, former deputy assistant secretary of state in the East Asia bureau, told Vanity Fair.

In an interview with the outlet, DiNanno describes how his probe into the lab leak theory was thwarted at every turn, with hostile and antagonistic technical staff warning him not to open ‘Pandora’s box.’

Things came to a head at a meeting on December 9, when State Department staff met to discuss what the department could or should say publicly about the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

According to people at the meeting, Christopher Park, the director of the State Department’s Biological Policy Staff in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, not to say anything that would point to the U.S. government’s own role in gain-of-function research.

Park, a Trump appointee like DiNanno, had been involved in lifting a U.S. government moratorium on funding for gain-of-function research in 2017. 

'Bat lady' Shi Zhengli works with other researchers in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in a file photo. She has published research on gain-of-function experiments

‘Bat lady’ Shi Zhengli works with other researchers in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in a file photo. She has published research on gain-of-function experiments

Park was reportedly not the only one who raised concerns about the investigation ultimately raising questions about U.S. funding. 

As the group probed the lab-leak scenario and other possibilities, its members were repeatedly advised not to open a ‘Pandora’s box,’ four former State Department officials told the magazine.

The admonitions ‘smelled like a cover-up,’ said DiNanno, ‘and I wasn’t going to be part of it.’

Park told Vanity Fair: ‘I am skeptical that people genuinely felt they were being discouraged from presenting facts.’ 

He insisted that he had just been making the case that it ‘is making an enormous and unjustifiable leap…to suggest that research of that kind [meant] that something untoward is going on.’

It’s unclear exactly much U.S. government funding was going to the WIV, but at least some of it was being routed through a nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance.

By 2018, EcoHealth Alliance was pulling in up to $15 million a year in grant money from an array of federal agencies, including the Defense Department, Homeland Security, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to tax filings.

EcoHealth Alliance and its founder Peter Daszak have been working with Shi Zhengli, the WIV virologist known as the ‘bat lady’, for more than 15 years. 

British-born Peter Daszak, 55, is the president of EcoHealth Alliance, the nonprofit that funneled US grant money to gain-of-function research at WIV and elsewhere. He is seen above participating in the World Health Organization's investigation in Wuhan

British-born Peter Daszak, 55, is the president of EcoHealth Alliance, the nonprofit that funneled US grant money to gain-of-function research at WIV and elsewhere. He is seen above participating in the World Health Organization’s investigation in Wuhan

British-born Daszak, 55, is the president of EcoHealth Alliance – and in the early days of the pandemic, he was key in establishing the veneer of a ‘scientific consensus’ that the lab-leak origin was impossible.

Daszak not only signed but spearheaded a letter signed by 27 scientists rejecting the lab leak hypothesis, which was published on February 19, 2020 in the medical journal The Lancet.

Leaked emails later revealed that he encouraged colleagues who do gain-of-function research on coronaviruses not to sign the letter, in order to obscure the connection.

The letter declared that the scientists had ‘no competing interests’ — but it seems clear that Daszak did, as a lab leak origin would likely derail his entire field, but an animal origin would justify his life’s work.  

Top WIV scientist Yuan Zhiming described widespread deficiencies in biosafety training in China's biosafety-level 3 labs in a 2019 article pleading for more funding

Top WIV scientist Yuan Zhiming described widespread deficiencies in biosafety training in China’s biosafety-level 3 labs in a 2019 article pleading for more funding

The Vanity Fair article also noted serious concerns about safety and upkeep at the WIV facilities that handle hundreds of strains of bat coronaviruses.

In 2019, in an article pleading for more funding, top WIV scientist Yuan Zhiming describes widespread deficiencies in biosafety training in China’s biosafety-level 3 labs.

China has dozens of BSL-3 labs, but only one BSL-4, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, though it plans to build half a dozen more. 

Yuan noted that ‘most laboratories lack specialized biosafety managers and engineers.’ 

He also wrote: ‘Maintenance cost is generally neglected; several high-level [BSL-3 labs] have insufficient operating funds for routine, yet vital processes… some BSL-3 laboratories run on extremely minimal operational costs or in some cases none at all.’

Last July, Yuan claimed on Chinese state television that safety protocols are so tight at WIV that ‘not a mosquito can fly into the building without authorization’. 

Death threats for saying the ‘lab leak’ theory could be true

The former director of the Centers for Disease Control received death threats from fellow scientists after he said during a TV interview that he believed COVID-19 originated in a lab, according to an interview released Thursday. 

Robert Redfield, who served as the CDC director under Donald Trump when the pandemic began, told CNN on March 26 that he thought the most likely ‘etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory – you know, escaped.’ 

He said he wasn’t insinuating that there was ill intent, but that was his opinion. 

After that 10-second sound bite, he told Vanity Fair he was ‘threatened and ostracized because I proposed another hypothesis.’ At the time, the Wuhan lab leak was widely considered a ‘fringe theory’ at best, in favor of transmission from an animal to a human.

The Vanity Fair article said ‘death threats flooded his inbox’ from strangers who said he was being racist to prominent scientists, even some he considered friends. One told him to ‘wither and die,’ Vanity Fair reported. 

‘I expected it from politicians. I didn’t expect it from science,’ Redfield said.  



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