In an in-depth article1 published in New York magazine January 4, 2021, Nicholson Baker reviews the history of viral gain-of-function research, and why the idea that SARS-CoV-2 might be an escaped lab creation isn’t so far-fetched after all.
He points out that while there’s “no direct evidence for an experimental mishap” (the key word here being “direct”), there’s no direct evidence that the virus arose zoonotically either.
In other words, while some scientists have pushed the idea that SARS-CoV-2 arose and evolved naturally, skipping from one animal species to another before ultimately developing the capability of infecting humans, there’s no solid scientific evidence to back this theory, and there should be, were it actually true.
Unique Features Raise Questions About SARS-CoV-2’s Origin
As noted in an August 20, 2020, article2 by Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., a former researcher with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute, SARS-CoV-2 has several unique features that make it exceptionally well-adapted for human infection.
This is quite odd, considering it “came out of nowhere” and hasn’t been found in any other living creature. If the virus arose naturally, we should be able to trace its evolution back to its source. Unique features of SARS-CoV-2 include:3
A very high infection rate, thanks to it being more selective for the human ACE2 receptor than SARS-Cov-1 (the virus responsible for the 2003 SARS pandemic)4
A unique furin cleavage site not found in any closely related bat coronaviruses, which allows the virus to fuse to human cells, thereby enhancing its pathogenicity and transmissibility5,6,7,8
Certain spike protein structures that are similar to those found in the MERS-CoV virus, which allow the virus to attach using not only the ACE2 receptor but also the DPP4 receptor, like MERS-CoV. This dual receptor strategy might be responsible for its ability to infect a wide range of human tissues9
In the preprint paper “Wuhan nCoV-2019 SARS Coronaviruses Genomics Fractal Metastructures Evolution and Origins,”10 Jean-Claude Perez, Ph.D., a retired interdisciplinary researcher with the IBM European Research Center on Artificial Intelligence, claims to provide “formal proof that 2019-nCoV coronavirus is partially a synthetic genome.”
According to Perez, the presence of HIV1 retrovirus fragments is evidence of SARS-CoV-2’s artificial nature. I’ve also written many other articles detailing evidence suggesting SARS-CoV-2 might be a laboratory creation.
Gain-of-Function Research Is a Pandemic Waiting to Happen
One of the reasons scientists would want to promote the zoonotic theory is because their livelihoods and careers are at stake. If it turns out that SARS-CoV-2 is an escaped lab creation, the logical conclusion would be that we need to severely restrict or stop gain-of-function research on pathogens altogether.
“It has been a full year … and, surprisingly, no public investigation has taken place,” Baker writes.11 “I think it’s worth offering some historical context for our yearlong medical nightmare.
We need to hear from the people who for years have contended that certain types of virus experimentation might lead to a disastrous pandemic like this one.
And we need to stop hunting for new exotic diseases in the wild, shipping them back to laboratories, and hot-wiring their genomes to prove how dangerous to human life they might become.”
As the name implies, gain-of-function research is aimed at creating more virulent strains of pathogens by giving them new functionalities. The justification for this hazardous work is that viruses mutate naturally, and we need to be prepared for the kinds of mutations that might arise.
The problem with this is that we’ve not been prepared for any of the lethal pandemics that have arisen, despite investing hundreds of millions of dollars into this kind of research. Apparently, it hasn’t given us the head start it’s supposed to give us, so why continue?
Even more disturbingly, there’s evidence that this research has caused a number of lethal outbreaks through the years. Many believe it’s only a matter of time before scientists cook up something truly horrific — something that would never have arisen in nature — that might threaten humanity’s survival were it to get out. As noted in Baker’s article:12
“The intentional creation of new microbes that combine virulence with heightened transmissibility ‘poses extraordinary risks to the public,’ wrote infectious-disease experts Marc Lipsitch and Thomas Inglesby in 2014. ‘A rigorous and transparent risk-assessment process for this work has not yet been established.’ That’s still true today.
In 2012, in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,13 Lynn Klotz warned that there was an 80 percent chance, given how many laboratories were then handling virulent viro-varietals, that a leak of a potential pandemic pathogen would occur sometime in the next 12 years.”
In his article,14 Baker highlights a 1950s Pentagon program called Project Baseless, the goal of which was to achieve “an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date.”
According to Baker, who has published an entire book on this topic, the U.S. government has spent “a vast treasure” on the “amplification and aerial delivery of diseases” over the past 70 years.
Serial Passaging Mimics Natural Evolution
One technique that allows scientists to make a pathogen more virulent is called “serial passaging.” By passing the virus through a series of cells from different animals, the virus progressively adapts to the new host cell, just as it would in nature (although there’s no guarantee that such transmission and adaptation would actually occur in nature). As described by Baker:15
“Take, for instance, this paper from 1995: ‘High Recombination and Mutation Rates in Mouse Hepatitis Viruses Suggest That Coronaviruses May Be Potentially Important Emerging Viruses’ … written by Dr. Ralph Baric and his bench scientist, Boyd Yount, at the University of North Carolina.
Baric … described in this early paper how his lab was able to train a coronavirus, MHV, which causes hepatitis in mice, to jump species, so that it could reliably infect BHK (baby-hamster kidney) cell cultures.
They did it using serial passaging: repeatedly dosing a mixed solution of mouse cells and hamster cells with mouse-hepatitis virus, while each time decreasing the number of mouse cells and upping the concentration of hamster cells.
At first, predictably, the mouse-hepatitis virus couldn’t do much with the hamster cells, which were left almost free of infection, floating in their world of fetal-calf serum.
But by the end of the experiment, after dozens of passages through cell cultures, the virus had mutated: It had mastered the trick of parasitizing an unfamiliar rodent. A scourge of mice was transformed into a scourge of hamsters …
A few years later, in a further round of ‘interspecies transfer’ experimentation, Baric’s scientists introduced their mouse coronavirus into flasks that held a suspension of African-green-monkey cells, human cells, and pig-testicle cells.
Then, in 2002, they announced something even more impressive: They’d found a way to create a full-length infectious clone of the entire mouse-hepatitis genome. Their ‘infectious construct’ replicated itself just like the real thing, they wrote.16
Not only that, but they’d figured out how to perform their assembly seamlessly, without any signs of human handiwork. Nobody would know if the virus had been fabricated in a laboratory or grown in nature. Baric called this the ‘no-see’m method,’ and he asserted that it had ‘broad and largely unappreciated molecular biology applications.'”
In 2006, Baric and Yount were granted a patent for this “no-see’m method” of cloning the deadly human SARS virus, which had been responsible for the SARS outbreak four years earlier. Interestingly, Baric started collaborating with another coronavirus expert in 2015 — a female scientist named Shi Zhengli at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.17
In his book “China COVID-19: The Chimera That Changed the World,”18 professor Giuseppe Tritto — president of the World Academy of Biomedical Sciences and Technology, founded under UNESCO, and an internationally recognized expert in bio and nanotechnology — accuses Shi of producing a SARS-like virus with increased pathogenicity by inserting a segment of the HIV virus into a horseshoe bat coronavirus.19
Thousands of Safety Breaches Have Occurred
As noted by Baker,20 “By 1960, hundreds of American scientists and technicians had been hospitalized, victims of the diseases they were trying to weaponize.” Since then, many more safety breaches have occurred.
Between 2008 and 2012 alone, more than 1,100 lab incidents involving highly infectious germs were reported to federal regulators,21 but the details are shrouded in secrecy.
According to a 2014 article in USA Today,22 “More than half these incidents were serious enough that lab workers received medical evaluations or treatment.” In his article, Baker lists several lethal incidents, including the following:23
In 1951, a Camp Detrick, Maryland, microbiologist developed a fever and died after trying to perfect the “foaming process of high-volume production” of anthrax
In 1964, veterinary worker Albert Nickel died after being bitten by a lab animal infected with the Machupo virus, which causes hemorrhagic fever
A 1977 global pandemic of influenza was traced back to a sample collected in 1950, which had been “preserved in a laboratory freezer” since then
In 1978, a medical photographer died after contracting a hybrid strain of smallpox at a lab in Birmingham, England
In 2007, live specimens of foot-and-mouth disease ended up leaking out of a faulty drainpipe at the Institute for Animal Health in Surrey, England
Only a Matter of Time Before Something Truly Nasty Gets Out
Other incidents are even more serious. For example, in 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense discovered that a germ-warfare testing center in Utah had sent out nearly 200 shipments of live anthrax to labs around the world, including the U.S., Australia, Germany, Japan and South Korea. Remarkably, this had been going on for the past 12 years!
High-containment laboratories have a whispered history of near misses … Things can go wrong in a hundred different ways. ~ Nicholson Baker
As recently as 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shut down labs at Fort Detrick after “breaches of containment” were discovered.
“High-containment laboratories have a whispered history of near misses,” Baker writes.24 “Scientists are people, and people have clumsy moments and poke themselves and get bitten by the enraged animals they are trying to nasally inoculate.
Machines can create invisible aerosols, and cell solutions can become contaminated. Waste systems don’t always work properly. Things can go wrong in a hundred different ways …
I asked Jonathan A. King, a molecular biologist and biosafety advocate from MIT, whether he’d thought lab accident when he first heard about the epidemic. ‘Absolutely, absolutely,’ King answered. Other scientists he knew were concerned as well.
But scientists, he said, in general were cautious about speaking out. There were ‘very intense, very subtle pressures’ on them not to push on issues of laboratory biohazards.
Collecting lots of bat viruses, and passaging those viruses repeatedly through cell cultures, and making bat-human viral hybrids, King believes, ‘generates new threats and desperately needs to be reined in.'”
Baker quotes concerns from several other scientists as well, including Philip Murphy, chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Immunology at the NIH; Nikolai Petrovsky, a professor of endocrinology at Flinders University College of Medicine in Adelaide, Australia; and Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University.
Ebright, in particular, said he’d “been concerned for some years” about the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s efforts to create hybrid SARS-related bat coronaviruses “with enhanced human infectivity.” Ebright told Baker that “In this context, the news of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan *screamed* lab release.”
US Government Suspects Lab Leak
A number of government officials have also given credence to the lab-origin theory, including U.S. deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, who in January 2021 stated that the lab-escape theory is the most credible, based on a growing body of evidence.
According to a January 2, 2021, report by the Daily Mail,25 “during a Zoom conference with [British] MPs on China.” The article further states that:
“Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory Party leader who attended the meeting, said Mr. Pottinger’s comments represented a ‘stiffening’ of the U.S. position on the theory that the virus came from a leak at the laboratory, amid reports that the Americans are talking to a whistleblower from the Wuhan institute.
‘I was told the U.S. have an ex-scientist from the laboratory in America at the moment,’ he said. ‘That was what I heard a few weeks ago. I was led to believe this is how they have been able to stiffen up their position on how this outbreak originated.’ He added that Beijing’s refusal to allow journalists to visit the laboratory only served to increase suspicion that it was ‘ground zero’ for the pandemic.”
Independent Investigation Required
As noted by journalist Ian Birrell in another January 3, 2021 article26 in the Daily Mail, “The world must investigate all the mounting evidence COVID leaked from a Wuhan lab.”
At present, there are two such investigations underway — one by the World Health Organization27 and another by The Lancet’s COVID-19 commission28 — but both are grossly tainted by conflicts of interest. EcoHealth Alliance president Peter Daszak is part of both of these investigations, despite being at the epicenter of the whole affair.
As noted in a December 16, 2020, Independent Science News article written by journalist Sam Husseini:29
When SARS-CoV-2 first emerged in Wuhan, China, the EcoHealth Alliance was providing funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to collect and study novel bat coronaviruses.
Daszak has been the primary expert chosen by the mainstream media to explain the origin of the pandemic.
Daszak has openly and repeatedly dismissed the possibility of the pandemic being the result of a lab leak.30
What’s more, in November 2020, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), an investigative public health nonprofit group, reported31,32 that emails obtained via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests prove Daszak played a central role in the plot to obscure the lab origin of SARS-CoV-2 by issuing a scientific statement in The Lancet condemning such inquiries as “conspiracy theory.”
Five other members of The Lancet Commission also signed the February 18, 2020, Lancet statement,33 which puts their credibility in question as well.
Daszak has every reason to make sure SARS-CoV-2 origin ends up being declared natural. It would be naïve to believe that safeguarding the continuation of dangerous gain-of-function research wouldn’t be a powerful motivator to preserve the zoonotic origin narrative.
Inconsistencies in the Data Raise Concerns
Professor Roger Pielke Jr., who studies and writes “about the messy and complicated places where science meets politics,”34 has also highlighted the need for independent investigations by the scientific community. In a November 19, 2020, blog post, Pielke wrote:35
“We should not let the hot politics of COVID-19 distract from the need for a cool assessment of where it came from, and corresponding lessons for the future.
A first priority for the research community, and in particular leading academic journals, is to ensure that relevant data is made available for independent analysis and that the narratives told and claims made by researchers are consistent across the scientific literature.
In the case of COVID-19, there is ample reason to suggest that some narratives and claims have been misleading or incomplete, and that data have been selectively shared, or not at all, or even gone missing.”
He goes on to review examples of inconsistencies discovered in both the timeline and characterization of data presented by Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists, who were among the first to publish data on the virus back in February 2020. One of those papers, published in the journal Nature, suggested SARS-CoV-2 was related to previously unsequenced bat coronaviruses.
However, shortly after, Indian researchers hypothesized that the bat virus described in that Nature paper had actually been collected in 2013, after several miners fell ill from a disease suspiciously similar to COVID-19.
“Earlier this week Nature published a clarifying addendum36 to the original WIV article. That addendum admitted that, yes indeed, the bat coronavirus was collected in 2013 from a cave after a group of miners had fallen ill due to a SARS-like disease.
Further, that 2013 bat coronavirus had been discussed in a 2016 paper37 (which, oddly, was uncited in their Nature paper). The name of the virus sample had been changed since 2016, and interestingly, was one of nine similar coronaviruses that had been collected at the time, but never disclosed, apparently until the Nature Addendum …
All of this is unusual and is troubling. The failure to disclose what are obviously key details is sloppy, under the most charitable interpretation, and less generously, lends itself to interpretations of being misleading or evasive …
The issues associated with the WIV Nature paper provide just a few from a larger set of examples of research integrity issues38 that appear to surround the WIV COVID-19 research. For instance, some researchers have alleged that relevant virus databases once online at WIV are no longer available39,40 …
While understanding the origins of COVID-19 is important to public health and international diplomacy, setting the research record straight is a matter of scientific integrity.”
Complicating matters, though, is the fact that China’s political system is an authoritarian one. There have been plenty of rumors of Chinese scientists being threatened by the government for speaking out about matters that might damage the nation or cause it to lose face, so while China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman has pledged China will help the WHO’s investigation into the origin of SARS-CoV-2 with an “open, transparent and responsible spirit,”41 there’s reason to doubt the genuineness of that statement.
Be that as it may, we must not give up the quest to determine its origin, because, as mentioned, if it turns out that the virus was created, and did escape — whether intentionally or not — we need to ensure that such an event never happens again. And that may mean shutting down and banning gain-of-function research altogether.