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:

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.