US experiments ‘may have contributed to emergence of Covid’

·4 min read
Prof Jeffrey Sachs says before the pandemic, work on Sars-like coronaviruses was being carried out - Horacio Villalobos/Corbis News
Prof Jeffrey Sachs says before the pandemic, work on Sars-like coronaviruses was being carried out - Horacio Villalobos/Corbis News

US experiments may have contributed to the emergence of Covid-19, leading economist Prof Jeffrey Sachs has warned, as he called for an independent inquiry into whether the virus leaked from a lab.

Prof Sachs, who has twice been named in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, called for universities and research institutions to open up their databases for scrutiny, amid fears labs were genetically modifying viruses.

Covid-19 first began spreading from a wet market in Wuhan, about eight miles from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market is where the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China - HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP
Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market is where the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China - HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP

Writing in the journal PNAS, Prof Sachs, who is also chairman of the Lancet Covid-19 Commission, said it was clear that scientists from the University of North Carolina (UNC) and New York-based EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) had been working with WIV to manipulate viruses.

“Research proposals make clear that the collaboration was involved in the collection of a large number of so-far undocumented Sars-like viruses and was engaged in their manipulation….raising concerns that an airborne virus might have infected a laboratory worker,” he said in a joint article with Prof Neil Harrison, of Columbia University.

The authors said that before the pandemic, work on Sars-like coronaviruses was being carried out as part of a ‘highly collaborative US–China scientific research program’ funded by the US government via the The National Institutes of Health (NIH).

This project, known as PREDICT, sought to identify viruses which had the potential to leap from animals to humans.

Researchers collected bat coronaviruses from China and southeast Asia, which were sent to various labs for ‘sequencing’, ‘archiving’, ‘analysis’ and ‘manipulation’.

A butcher selling a yak's head to a customer at a market in Beijing. PREDICT sought to identify viruses which had the potential to leap from animals to humans - NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP
A butcher selling a yak's head to a customer at a market in Beijing. PREDICT sought to identify viruses which had the potential to leap from animals to humans - NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP

US experiments remain unknown

China has failed to reveal much of the work that was happening, and removed a database of viral sequences shortly before the pandemic erupted.

But experiments were also taking place in the US which have also never been disclosed for independent analysis, the authors argue.

“The precise nature of the experiments that were conducted, including the full array of viruses collected from the field and the subsequent sequencing and manipulation of those viruses, remains unknown,” wrote Prof Sachs and Prof Harrison.

The pair also point out that the same group of Chinese/US scientists had submitted proposals to insert a specialist feature into Sars-like viruses called the furin cleavage site (FCS).

Covid-19 is unique in having a FCS, and it is the reason the virus is so infectious to humans. No other coronaviruses have the feature, and some scientists believe it is evidence the virus was man-made. Others think it occurred naturally through evolution.

Leaked proposals showed that scientists from the University of North Carolina, EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology had applied for funding to insert an FCS into a Sars-like virus less than two years before the pandemic.

The funding request was turned down by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) who warned it was unsafe.

Writing in the journal, Prof Sachs and Prof Harrison said: “We do not know whether the insertion of the FCS was the result of natural evolution…or was the result of a deliberate introduction of the FCS into a Sars-like virus as part of a laboratory experiment.

“We do know that the insertion of such FCS sequences into Sars-like viruses was a specific goal of work proposed by the EHA-WIV-UNC partnership within a 2018 grant proposal that was submitted to Darpa.

“The 2018 proposal to Darpa was not funded, but we do not know whether some of the proposed work was subsequently carried out in 2018 or 2019, perhaps using another source of funding.”

Independent and transparent investigation needed

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH), has previously stated Covid-19 could not have emerged from experiments it funded because there is too much of an evolutionary gap between the pandemic virus and published lab data.

But Prof Sachs and Prof Harrison said that claim could only be verified if investigators were given access to unpublished viral sequences.

“There is much to learn from the US institutions that were extensively involved in research that may have contributed to, or documented the emergence of, the Sars-CoV-2 virus” the pair conclude.

“Only an independent and transparent investigation, perhaps as a bipartisan Congressional inquiry, will reveal the information that is needed to enable a thorough scientific process of scrutiny and evaluation.”

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