The search for answers about the origins of Covid-19 has drawn worldwide attention to a corner of science that once operated away from the public eye.
Known as “gain of function”, research involves manipulating pathogens, often making them more lethal with the goal of understanding how viruses behave and how they can be resistant to vaccines. Critics say the risk of pathogens escaping and triggering a pandemic is too high – in 2014 U.S. funding for conducting functional research on certain viruses was stopped by President Barack Obama while officials were making stricter instructions.
New rules were enacted in 2017 but the same experiments, always with U.S. funding, continued after the ban on laboratories around the world, including the facility that is now at the center of the debate on the origin of the coronavirus: the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
A multinational group of 15 scientists working at the Wuhan Institute received $ 600,000 in public funding in the United States between 2015 and 2020 to investigate whether coronavirus bats endanger humans, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a U.S. Senate. listening this week.
As part of the work, the tem – including the famous Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli, known as “batwoman” in China – combined two different coronaviruses, creating a more dangerous version, which they found to be more likely to detect humans, according to a 2015 paper the scientists published in the journal Nature.
Fauci denied on Tuesday that the experiments consisted of claiming functional analysis. However, the 2015 paper carries an extreme warning: “Scientific review panels can be considered similar studies producing chimeric viruses based on circulating risk types are also to be followed.”
“These data and constraints represent a crossroads in the GOF [gain of function] research concerns, ”the scientists wrote in the paper. “The potential to prepare for and mitigate future outbreaks must be weighed against the risk of generating more dangerous pathogens.”
Their warning got even more resonance because some scientists, still have no reason to prove that Sars-Cov-2 naturally jumped to humans from bats or through an intermediate host animal. , is now considering the possibility of it coming out of the Wuhan Institute.
“We need to take assumptions about natural and laboratory spillover seriously until there is enough data,” a group of scientists including Ralph Baric, one of the authors of the 2015 paper, wrote in an open letter this month.
“If you’re going to do an experiment that carries a lot of risk of starting a new pandemic, there has to be a very good public health rationale for doing it,” explains Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard.
A World Health Organization investigation, expedited in China, found earlier this year that it was “highly unlikely” that Sars-Cov-2 had leaked from a research facility. But the conclusion was challenged in March by countries including the US and UK, and by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, who said the review was not yet “adequate”.
US president Joe Biden this week ordered his intelligence agencies to review the evidence for the lab hypothesis and come to a conclusion within 90 days. China’s state media has always been denied the possibility of a lab leak and described the theory as a “conspiracy”.
The renewed attention has raised difficult questions for the U.S. National Institutes of Health about its relationship with the Wuhan Institute and research. Baric and the EcoHealth Alliance – a non -governmental group through which the NIH provides funding – have, like Fauci, previously denied that their work in Wuhan consists of researching the functioning of the activity, in part because it is not intended to increase the disease that infects humans.
Baric, NIH, EcoHealthAlliance and the Wuhan Institute did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite classifying the NIH -funded work in Wuhan, some experts, including Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, argued that it should not be done.
“It doesn’t matter if the Covid-19 pandemic was the result of a lab leak, the fact that such a result is credible means it’s a category of research that we shouldn’t have funded or helped to accomplish,” Ebright said.
Ebright also questioned the security standards at Wuhan facilities. In 2016, some of the scientists, including Shi and EcoHealth director Peter Daszak, used NIH funding to continue Wuhan live coronavirus experiments in the biosafety level 2 lab, according to published details of the work. BSL-2 facilities are often used for moderate-risk work, where researchers can experiment with open benches wearing only light coats and gloves.
“If this work had happened, it shouldn’t have happened with BSL-2,” Ebright said. “That’s the equivalent of a standard dentist’s office.”
The first biosafety level 4 lab in China, where the most dangerous biological work ever done, opened in Wuhan in 2018. Daszak did not respond to a request for comment.
Ebright was not alone in his concerns. In 2018, American diplomats in China reportedly sent cables in Washington warning: “The new lab [at Wuhan] there is a serious shortage of the properly trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this fresh container.
While scientists say the world isn’t quite sure whether Covid-19 originated naturally or in the Wuhan lab, many believe the pandemic underscores why such research never happened.
Milton Leitenberg, an expert in biological weapons at the University of Maryland, said: “Whatever we recognized this work, it would not have happened at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
Further reporting by Yuan Yang and Nian Liu in Beijing