US Congressional Republicans Push Lab Leak Theory in New Report on SARS-CoV2 Virus Origins COVID-19 Science 02/08/2021 • Madeleine Hoecklin Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) The Wuhan Institute of Virology, guarded by police officers during the visit of a WHO-led team of scientists in early February, 2021. A “preponderance of evidence” proves that the SARS-CoV2 virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), the Chinese research institute studying bat coronaviruses, concluded a report by US Congressional Republicans, released on Monday. “As we continue to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe it’s time to completely dismiss the wet market as the source of the outbreak. Instead, as this report lays out, a preponderance of the evidence proves that all roads lead to the WIV,” Representative Michael McCaul, Lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a press release. The report, published ahead of a planned report by the Democratic administration of US President Joe Biden, due to be completed by the end of August, is sure to add a partisan political dimension to the questions hanging over the origins quest. And that, on top of an already charged triangle of tensions between Washington, Beijing and the World Health Organization in Geneva – over how to proceed with the origins investigation after China last month rejected out-of-hand WHO suggestions that that the lab escape theory should be revisited, along with requesting Beijing to supply for more data and information. Report cites “ample evidence” that WIV researchers were working to modify coronaviruses – to be even more infective The report cites “ample evidence” that WIV researchers, aided by US experts and funded by the Chinese and US government, were working to modify coronaviruses to improve their ability to cause disease – ostensibly for vaccine research. “Much of this research was focused on modifying the spike protein of coronaviruses that could not infect humans, so they could bind to human immune systems. The stated purpose of this work was to identify viruses with pandemic potential and to create a broad-spectrum coronavirus vaccine,” the report said. But this risky research was taking place in unsafe biosafety conditions, according to the report. “With dangerous research like this conducted at safety levels similar to a dentist’s office, a natural or genetically modified virus could have easily escaped the lab and infected the community,” said the report. “It is our belief the virus leaked sometime in late August or early September 2019,” said McCaul. Alleges Chinese, World Health Organization & EcoHealth Alliance coverup Then, in the wake of the virus escape, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) embarked on a massive cover-up, detaining doctors and journalists to silence them, destroying lab samples, and hiding evidence of human-to-human transmission, the report claimed, adding that the World Health Organization was compliant in the cover-up. “The CCP and the World Health Organization (WHO) went to great lengths to cover up the initial epidemic,” said the report, adding that WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus “parroted CCP talking points” and “act[ed] as a puppet of General Secretary Xi.” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the biweekly WHO press conference on Friday. “This was the greatest cover-up of all time and has caused the deaths of more than four million people around the world, and people must be held responsible,” said McCaul. The report further charges that in the wake of the outrage over the pandemic, researchers at the WIV, along with Dr Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and a member of the joint WHO-China origins investigation team, covered up the real nature of the research being conducted. WIV and Daszak singled out for “misleading the world” Authors of the report claim that scientists at WIV and Daszak misled the world, lied about the research being conducted, and bullied other scientists who questioned whether the virus could have leaked from a lab. Dr Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and member of WHO’s investigative team. Top scientists from the WIV, along with Daszak, were “misleading the world about how a virus can be modified without leaving a trace and…directly lying about the nature of the research they were conducting, as well as the low-level safety protocols they were using for that research,” said the report. “These actions not only delayed an initial investigation into the possibility of a lab leak, costing valuable time, but provide further proof the virus likely leaked from the WIV. These actions also call into question the way in which U.S. government grants are used in overseas labs and call for more oversight of those grants,” the report said. “Now is the time to use all of the tools the U.S. government has to continue to root out the full truth of how this virus came to be. That includes subpoenaing Peter Daszak to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to answer the many questions his inconsistent – and in some instances outright and knowingly inaccurate – statements have raised,” said McCaul, in his statement. The report, authored by the House Foreign Affairs Committee Minority Staff, also calls upon the US Congress to: Institute a ban on conducting and funding work that includes gain-of-function research, which genetically alters an organism to enhance its biological functions, until international standards are set; Sanction the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which runs the WIV; Financially sanction the leadership of the WIV to block their assets and prohibit US citizens from dealing with them; and Authorize new sanctions for academic, governmental, and military bioresearch facilities that fail to implement the appropriate levels of safety and information sharing. Daszak, who is a member of the “Lancet COVID-19 Commission Task Force on the Origins, Early Spread of COVID-19, and One Health Solutions to Pandemics,” recused himself from the Commission’s work on the origins of the pandemic in late June. This decision was made to remove any question over whether there were conflicts of interest with his research ties with the WIV. He continues to work on analysis of the early spread of SARS-CoV2 and One Health solutions. Republican report comes in wake of recent study linking deleted SARS-CoV2 gene sequences more closely to bat viruses The new US report comes on the heels of a recent study posted on the pre-print server Biorxiv.org that unearthed a deleted data set of SARS-CoV2 virus gene sequences circulating in Wuhan in late 2019, in variants “that made it more similar to SARS-CoV-2’s bat coronavirus relatives” – than those circulating in the Huanan Seafood Market. The Seafood Market was the first site to be publicly identified as the epicenter of the new virus, when clusters of infection linked to market workers or patrons were first publicly identified in December 2019 and January 2020. However, it has since become evident that other virus variants were already circulating in clusters outside of the market in December, and likely well before. “At first, we assumed the seafood market might have the virus, but now the market is more like a victim,” Dr George Fu Gao, Director General of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, admitted in May 2020. “The novel coronavirus had existed long before.” In the new Biorxiv.org study, the lead author Dr Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, recovered virus sequences that were deleted from US data repositories from a Google cloud. In a new study, I identify and recover a deleted set of #SARSCoV2 sequences that provide additional information about viruses from the early Wuhan outbreak: https://t.co/1zdeiOQ0vo (1/n) — Bloom Lab (@jbloom_lab) June 22, 2021 His study reports on 34 of some 241 SARS-CoV2 genetic sequences that were collected at Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University early in the Wuhan outbreak, and later posted, then deleted from, the US National Institutes of Health’s Sequence Read Archive (SRA) data repository. Using raw sequence data from the recovered samples, Bloom was able to reconstruct partial sequences for 13 of the samples. Most ‘perplexing finding’ Bloom’s most “perplexing” finding was that among the early SARS-CoV2 sequence samples, those collected from people or areas outside of the Wuhan market have a closer relationship to bat coronaviruses – which are presumed to be the animal origins of the virus. This suggests that the market sequences, which were initially the focus of the joint WHO-China origins investigation’s epidemiological work, are not really representative of the viruses that were circulating in late 2019. “We’d expect the first SARS-CoV2 sequences would be more similar to bat coronaviruses, and as SARS-CoV2 continued to evolve it would become more divergent from these ancestors. But that is *not* the case!” Bloom tweeted on 22 June. Samples collected later in other areas of China and other countries were more similar to bat coronaviruses than samples from early Huanan Seafood Market cases. All sequences associated with the market differed from RaTG13, the bat coronavirus with the highest full-genome sequence identity to SARS-CoV2, by at least three more mutations compared to subsequent sequences collected. The conundrum is easily seen by plotting the relative differences from the bat coronavirus RaTG13 outgroup versus collection date for early #SARSCoV2. See how the first reported viruses from Wuhan (leftmost blue points) aren’t the closest to RaTG13. (10/n) pic.twitter.com/YuVp4efUNq — Bloom Lab (@jbloom_lab) June 22, 2021 This is “a fact that is difficult to reconcile with the idea that the market was the original location of spread of a bat coronavirus into humans,” said the study. Deleted files reported to be back online now Last week, the New York Times reported that the missing viral genome sequences were back online – after quietly being uploaded in early July to a China National Center for Bioinformation database, overseen by the government following publication of Bloom’s report. Speculation by Bloom that the sequences had been deliberately deleted was countered by Chinese government statements that the sequences had gone missing as the result of an editorial error, noted by a German scientific journal. Bloom has been involved in the policy decisions around virus origins debate Bloom has been involved in the debate over the virus origins, joining 17 other prominent scientists to author a letter in Science critiquing the joint WHO-China origins report. According to the authors, “theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable” and were not “given balanced consideration” by the report. There were no clear findings of either a natural spillover or lab accident, but the report assessed zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host as “likely to very likely” and a lab accident as “extremely unlikely.” (https://t.co/mD1YMiTdo8) (5/n) — Bloom Lab (@jbloom_lab) May 13, 2021 In the letter, they demand that the two hypotheses “be taken seriously…until we have sufficient data.” According to Bloom, “these data provide no direct evidence to favor either a lab accident or a natural zoonosis. However, they do indicate the importance of continuing to seek new data about the origins and early spread of SARS-CoV2.” Bloom’s study “indicate[s] that we probably have not exhausted all relevant data,” he told the Washington Post. “Scientists need to stay focused on data-driven study SARS-CoV2 origins/early spread,” Bloom tweeted on 22 June. “After spending 4 months studying this closely, I am cautiously optimistic that additional relevant data are still likely to come to light.” “We should therefore avoid dogmatic arguments about SARS-CoV2 origin/early spread, and instead focus on following two questions: (1) How can we get more data? (2) How can we better analyze the data we have?” he continued. Findings add to previous evidence of earlier virus circulation – with no link to Huanan Seafood Market Several other studies have also found that many early COVID cases also had no connection to the Huanan Seafood Market. Those include: A study published in the Lancet in late January 2020, conducted by a large group of Chinese researchers, discovered that the earliest reported case had no link to the market and “no epidemiological link was found between the first patient and later cases.” Only 66% of the patients in the study had direct exposure to Huanan Seafood Market. In a separate study conducted by researchers at the Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan, 49% of the 99 patients with COVID-19 had a history of exposure to the market. Researchers from the University of California San Diego used molecular dating tools and epidemiological simulations to identify the first case of SARS-CoV2. In the study, published in the journal Science in April 2021, the researchers estimated that the virus was likely circulating undetected for at most two months before the first human cases of COVID-19 were identified in Wuhan. Genetic tracking may help determine virus origins Regardless of the narrative around the sequences’ disappearance, more knowledge about the genetic sequences of early virus mutations is critical in tracking the virus origins, other scientists agree. “This line of inquiry may help us determine the origin of the virus and reconstruct how it spread in the earliest days of the pandemic,” Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told USA Today. During the WHO-mandated origins investigation in Wuhan in January and February of 2021, the team gathered evidence that there were diverse strains of the SARS-CoV2 virus already circulating in the city in December 2019. “The SARS CoV-2 virus was circulating in the Wuhan market market in December 2019, but it was also circulating elsewhere in the city, in cases unrelated to each other,” Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist and epidemiologist and a member of the joint WHO-China origins investigation, acknowledged at a press briefing in early March. “The analysis of recovered sequences does not fundamentally change our current understanding of early SARS-CoV2 evolution, but it does make the hypothesis of a single-source wet market outbreak implausible,” Dr Sergei Pond, Professor of Biology at Temple University in Pennsylvania, tweeted. The analysis of recovered sequences does not fundamentally change our current understanding of early SARS-CoV-2 evolution, but it does make the hypothesis of a single-source wet market outbreak implausible. — Sergei Pond (@sergeilkp) June 23, 2021 “The progenitor of all known SARS-CoV-2 sequences could still be downstream of the sequence that infected patient zero – and it is possible that the future discovery of additional early SARS-CoV-2 sequences could lead to further revisions of inferences about the earliest viruses in the outbreak,” said the study. “We should be prepared, however, to revise these ideas and hypotheses further if and when more early sequence data emerge,” Pond tweeted. Image Credits: CNN, Sputnik. Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.