U.S. officials investigating the origins of COVID-19 were warned last year not to open “Pandora’s Box” by speaking about gain-of-function research in Wuhan, China, because of U.S. grant funding that supported the lab, according to a new report.
The investigation by Vanity Fair highlights how probes into the Wuhan Institute of Virology sputtered due to widespread secrecy and Chinese obstruction before a foreign tip revealed that two of the lab’s workers were hospitalized in November 2019 — right on the cusp of the pandemic that began in the central Chinese city.
The National Security Council investigators were concerned that the Chinese military had engineered mice to have “humanized” lungs and studied their vulnerability to viruses. One study published in April 2020 suggested the new coronavirus was tested on the mice, and the timeline of the study suggests the animals were engineered in 2019, according to the report.
The revelations split officials within the State Department, with some fearing the lab-leak theory was being buried and others thinking a contingent wanted to confirm the lab theory at all costs to appease the White House, as then-President Trump pointed to China‘s culpability.
At least one State official stunned colleagues and scientists by warning that any focus on gain-of-function research would “open a can of worms” because the U.S. funded a grantee that doled out money to the Wuhan lab.
Gain-of-function is a controversial arena of disease study in which a pathogen is altered to make it more transmissible or infectious for a broader range of hosts.
Proponents say it helps scientists understand a pathogen’s traits and create vaccines and therapeutics while others say it risks unleashing threats that aren’t found in nature.
The Obama administration put a moratorium on it in 2014 with carveouts for “urgent needs.” The pause was lifted in 2017 with a system that charges funding agencies with tracking safety.
One grant, with EcoHealth, was doled out before the moratorium and wasn’t stopped during the moratorium, according to the magazine.
The grant is being scrutinized because some of EcoHealth’s funding was distributed to the Wuhan lab.
The Trump White House revoked the grant before the National Institutes of Health reinstated it with a pause on research until EcoHealth could ensure safety in light of the mystery around the coronavirus’s origins and reports of lax protocols in Wuhan.
Republican lawmakers are pressing the NIH to be more transparent about what the grant money was used for in Wuhan.
“The grant funds that went to Wuhan, which were a subcontract from EcoHealth, were very specifically aimed to try to categorize viruses that they could isolate from bats in Chinese caves, which we had a good reason to want to know more about, given SARS [in 2003] and MERS that had come out of there,” NIH Director Francis Collins told radio host Hugh Hewitt this week. “We had no control over what else they were doing with those funds. That’s another thing we’d like to know more about, and an investigation might potentially tell us.”
The Vanity Fair report details how after series of dueling memos, the State Department issued a fact sheet in mid-January that Wuhan researchers fell ill in November 2019 and the lab had “engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
The new administration hasn’t disputed the findings and President Biden asked the intelligence community to dig deeper into the virus’s origins for 90 days and report back to him, citing the split between natural-origin and lab-leak theories.
The magazine also detailed how armchair investigators, dubbed the “DRASTIC” group, are trying to take a sober look at whether the virus escaped from the lab, navigating a space between scientists who declared the theory outlandish last year and Trump acolytes who’ve used it hammer China without showing firm evidence.
Scientists who said it was worth exploring the lab-leak theory have been ostracized even though Wuhan was one of only three places doing aggressive research on bat viruses, alongside labs in Galveston, Texas, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“It’s not a dozen cities. It’s three places,” said Dr. Richard Ebright, board of governors professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University. He told the magazine that it took a “nanosecond” to consider the Wuhan lab as a potential source given the site of the initial outbreak.