New Routes to Making Covid-19 In The Lab

Nicholas Wade
9 min readSep 23, 2021

Chinese authorities are stonewalling all inquiries into the origin of the SARS2 virus. But that hardly seems to matter when new documents from the U.S. side are revealing so much.

It’s long been known that the EcoHealth Alliance in New York was funding researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China to manipulate SARS-like bat viruses in the laboratory. One of these manipulations could have led to the creation of the SARS2 virus, which then escaped from the lab. But there was no way to prove this, and lab leak has remained a plausible conjecture just like the rival hypothesis, that the virus jumped naturally from bats to people.

Two new caches of documents have added considerable substance — though not yet proof — to the idea that the SARS2 epidemic may have originated in a lab accident.

One is a grant proposal written by EcoHealth in March 2018 to DARPA, a research agency in the Department of Defense. The document was obtained by DRASTIC, a research co-operative that is exploring the lab leak hypothesis, and released on September 20.

A prominent feature of the proposal is to “introduce appropriate human-specific cleavage sites” into SARS-like viruses. Such a procedure is eye-catching, if not jaw-dropping, because the distinctive feature of the SARS2 virus is a genetic element known as a furin cleavage site. The element greatly enhances the virus’s ability to infect human cells. The furin cleavage site attracted attention from the start because the natural way for the SARS2 virus to acquire it would be from a closely related virus. But SARS2 is the only member of its family — a group called Sarbecoviruses — that is so far known to possess one, giving no support for the natural acquisition idea.

Some experts therefore suggested that the furin cleavage site had been genetically engineered into the backbone of a SARS-like virus, creating SARS2. But there was no specific evidence that the Wuhan researchers had in fact done so.

The EcoHealth grant proposal to DARPA now puts beyond doubt that engineering cleavage sites into SARS-like viruses was a technique to be explored at the Wuhan institute.

Moreover the preceding sentence in the document specifically mentions furin cleavage sites, showing this particular element was on the researchers’ minds and could well have been the cleavage site used in experiments:

“We will analyze all SARSr-CoV S gene sequences for … the presence of potential furin cleavage sites,” the proposal says, referring to the S or spike gene where the SARS2 furin cleavage site is located. SARSr-CoV means coronaviruses related to SARS1, the cause of the SARS1 epidemic of 2003.

The proposal goes on to say (page 9), “We will introduce appropriate human-specific cleavage sites and evaluate growth potential in Vero cells and HAE cultures.” This means the SARS-like viruses with an inserted cleavage site will be tested in monkey kidney cells, a standard laboratory host for viruses, and in cultures of human airway epithelial (HAE) cells. A virus trained to grow in human airway cells would of course be particularly good at infecting human airways should it escape.

The proposal was rejected by DARPA, but that does not necessarily mean the experiments it described were not performed. It’s routine practice for researchers to use funds from one grant to do experiments that will support their application for the next. Or, EcoHealth could have undertaken them with other funds. At the least, researchers at EcoHealth and the Wuhan Institute of Virology were actively contemplating inserting a cleavage site, very possibly the furin one, into a SARS-related virus, the exact recipe for generating SARS2.

Three points emerge from EcoHealth’s DARPA proposal, it seems to me. First, the lab leak hypothesis becomes substantially more specific and credible. Before, it was just a guess that the Wuhan researchers might have wanted to add the furin cleavage site to a virus. It’s now evident that they were actively thinking of the precise genetic manipulation by which the SARS2 virus could have been generated in the lab. Surely the burden of proof now shifts to the Wuhan virologists. They need to provide a public accounting of all experiments in which they engineered human cleavage sites into bat viruses.

Second, it’s long been clear that Peter Dazsak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, has known a great deal more about the possible origins of SARS2 than he is saying. In hindsight, his vigorous campaign of deriding lab leak as ridiculous gives the strong impression of being fueled by his fear that it was not. If Congress is at all interested in the origin of a virus that has so far killed almost 700,000 Americans, why does it not subpoena Dr. Daszak to turn over all his records and explain under oath everything he knows about the research he funded at the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

Third, the 18 intelligence agencies which labored unsuccessfully to reach a conclusion about the origin of SARS2 evidently failed to discover the EcoHealth proposal to DARPA or they would surely have given stronger weight to lab escape. “Parturient montes; nascetur exiguus mus,” wrote the poet Horace — “The mountains labor, and bring to birth a tiny mouse.” Avril Haynes, director of National Intelligence and owner of the risible mouse, may now be wondering why the 18 agencies under her command can’t do as well as small amateur groups like the DRASTIC cooperative in turning up relevant intelligence about the origins of the Covid epidemic.

A second remarkable document surfaced a few days before DRASTIC’s leak of the DARPA submission. This was the full grant proposal and progress reports submitted by EcoHealth to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in support of its research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology from 2014 to 2019. It was obtained by the Intercept after a Freedom of Information Act request, followed by a lawsuit. Previously only a brief abstract of the grant was available.

From the full grant, it’s now clear that the Wuhan researchers were working with a bat virus, called WIV1, which is related to the virus that caused the SARS1 epidemic of 2003. They swapped out its spike protein gene for that of three other SARS1-related viruses, creating three novel viruses, which they then tested on humanized mice. These are animals genetically engineered to carry the human receptor protein, the virus family’s target, in the cells of their airways.

The novel viruses caused the mice to lose more weight than the parent virus did, and generated far more viral particles in the mice’s lungs. These enhancements represent a gain of function.

Two conclusions emerge from the Intercept’s documents. The first is that, although these particular experiments could not have generated the SARS2 virus, they provided the perfect procedure for doing so, had the Wuhan researchers selected an appropriate parent virus from the many unpublished bat viruses in their collection, and added a furin cleavage site as mentioned in the DARPA proposal.

If the NIH had shared its knowledge of these experiments in January 2020, lab leak would have been an obvious possible source of the virus from the very start, and the investigation of its origin might have proceeded far more successfully. Instead, the agency’s leaders went along with a bizarre reversal of the report presented to them by expert virologists that the SARS2 virus was unnatural.

A second conclusion derivable from the Intercept’s documents is that the Wuhan researchers had all but certainly trespassed into the red flag area of gain of function experiments. The virology community has been in schism for the last 10 years on the question of how far, in their quest for knowledge, researchers should be allowed to soup up a virus’s natural functions. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIAID, and his boss, Francis Collins, the director of NIH, have advocated in favor of gain of function research. Researchers affiliated with the Cambridge Working Group have argued against it.

Opponents successfully lobbied for a hold on new federal research funding that began in 2014. That moratorium was replaced three years later with a requirement that certain gain of function experiments be reported to a federal panel.

The NIAID grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology was exempted from both the moratorium and reporting requirement, wrongly in the view of critics such as Richard Ebright of Rutgers University who view the experiments as endowing viruses with enhanced function. Dr. Fauci assured Senator Rand Paul in July that the NIH had never supported gain of function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology but didn’t explain his reasoning any further.

The Intercept consulted 11 virologists, 7 of whom said the work reported by the Wuhan researchers was gain of function under the NIH definition. The spread of opinion demonstrates at the least that a very fuzzy regulation was being used to control a highly dangerous technology.

In a 27 July letter to Senator Grassley Dr. Collins asserted that the novel viruses being generated in Wuhan did not count as gain of function because they “would contain only small portions of evolutionarily distant bat coronaviruses.” This is a surprising argument because the “small portion” grafted into the parent virus was the gene for the spike protein of other viruses. The spike is critical to determining which species the virus can infect. Its small size is no gauge of its importance. It’s hard to see why greater pathogenicity caused by inserting a new spike protein into a virus would not count as a gain of function.

Dr. Collins went on to assure Senator Grassley that — not to worry — a traffic stop had been added to the Wuhan grant just in case things got out of control. In a letter of July 7, 2016 the Ecohealth Alliance of New York was told that its experiments at the Wuhan institute must stop immediately if any novel virus started growing 10 times faster than its parent virus.

In fact the novel viruses attained growth rates up to10,000 times faster than that of their parent virus, the new documents show. But there’s no evidence that the Wuhan researchers halted the experiments. The traffic stop turned flashing red and they just drove straight through it. All that Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins did was award them another grant.

Dr. Collins and Dr. Fauci are longtime medical research officials who have served with distinction for many years through administrations of both parties. But their actions in the matter of SARS2’s origins have been perplexing.

They failed to investigate the virus’s origins with any degree of seriousness, outsourcing the inquiry to a London health operative, Jeremy Farrar, who has close ties to Chinese medical officials. They didn’t blink an eyelid when Dr. Farrar oversaw the reversal of a finding by experts that the virus was not natural, nor when he facilitated a wildly successful propaganda campaign to sink the lab leak hypothesis. They failed to closely supervise Dr. Daszak and his cowboy schemes to have his Chinese subcontractors generate ever more dangerous viruses in minimally adequate safety conditions. They designed a system for regulating gain of function experiments that some experts regard as too permissive. Instead of explaining the policy, Dr. Fauci angrily told Senator Rand Paul that the senator didn’t know what he was talking about.

Managing cutting edge research is not easy. There are plenty of people who demand such rigorous safety standards that research would grind to a halt. It was fine for Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins to advocate a bold program of virological research that included some gain of function. Dr. Fauci rightly identified bat viruses, the cause of the SARS1 and MERS epidemics, as a likely source of further epidemics. He can hardly be faulted for supporting a collaboration with China’s leading expert on coronaviruses, Shi Zhengli.

But having put all those pieces in place, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins were apparently quite content for this hazardous research program to be managed by Dr. Daszak. Dr. Daszak is not a virologist. He has a Ph.D. in parasitology from the University of East London. He is expert at collecting research grants, a rich flow of funds from which he draws off a salary of $411,000. It’s not clear that Dr. Daszak, or maybe anyone else, was competent to judge the full danger of the experiments he was sponsoring.

It’s easy to be wise after the event, but Dr. Collins and Dr. Fauci surely needed to monitor Dr. Daszak closely and to investigate with alacrity any red flags that might pop up in his domain. It’s not at present clear that they did either.




Nicholas Wade

I'm a science writer and have worked on the staff of Nature, Science and, for many years, on the New York Times.