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Gain-of-Function Ghouls: SARS-CoV-2 Isn’t the Scariest Thing That Could Leak From a Lab

“With four separate infections within the last year at three different institutions in Beijing, Singapore, and Taipei, health experts fear that the next SARS epidemic may be more likely to emerge from a research lab than from the presumed animal reservoir.”—“Lab Accidents Prompt Calls for New Containment Program,” Science, 28 May 2004

Lab accidents happen.

When the first Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-1) pandemic ended in 2003, lab-acquired infections continued.

Immediately following the end of the 2003 pandemic, there were four separate outbreaks of lab-acquired infections of SARS-1 within one year at three different labs in Beijing, Singapore and Taipei. The situation was so bad that Science magazine warned, “health experts fear that the next SARS epidemic may be more likely to emerge from a research lab than from the presumed animal reservoir.”

In one lab accident, a 26-year-old graduate student was exposed while working at the Institute of Viral Disease Control at the Chinese CDC. Her mother caught the disease from her and died. 

Infected mouse bites man

It’s been less than a year since SARS-2 somehow escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China, infecting millions, triggering serious illness and death among the elderly (especially those in nursing homes) and those with serious pre-existing chronic diseases (obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart, lung and liver disease), and melting down the global economy.

And yet, almost like a Hollywood horror movie, dangerous experiments on viruses and bacteria even more lethal than COVID-19 are taking place in military and biomedical research facilities around the world, with potentially catastrophic consequences. 

Information on these accidents should be readily available. The National Institute of Health, under the NIH Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant or Synthetic Nucleic Acid Molecules, requires research institutions to maintain Institutional Biosafety Committees to oversee lab safety and protect dangerous biological agents from theft and misuse. 

SIGN THE PETITION: Demand an Immediate Global Ban on Gain-of-Function ‘Biomedical’ and ‘Biodefense’ Research!

These IBCs are supposed to register with NIH’s Office of Science Policy, hold regular meetings, make meeting minutes available to the public and report any significant problems, violations or any significant research-related accidents and illnesses to the OSP. Spills or accidents occurring in high containment (BL3 or BL4) laboratories resulting in an overt or potential exposure must be reported immediately.

However, what Prickly Research investigator Edward Hammond found while running the Sunshine Project (an international NGO dedicated to upholding prohibitions against biological warfare) was that:

“many IBCs didn’t even exist. At all. Including IBCs at institutions handling very dangerous infectious diseases. They did not meet, and they did not exercise their responsibilities. And NIH, which never wanted the role of enforcer, did not care.”

Through Hammond’s persistence (and lawsuits) he was able to force some IBCs to comply with their regulatory responsibilities. 

Hammond, who now writes a blog called Strange Cultures, shared his latest findings with Dr Jonathan Latham in a recent report, “Engineered COVID-19-Infected Mouse Bites Researcher Amid ‘Explosion’ Of Risky Coronavirus Research,” published in Independent Science News.

These included details of the North Carolina lab of infamous gain-of-function scientist Ralph Baric—the first U.S. lab known to have genetically engineered a synthetic version of the live SARS-CoV-2 virus stitched together from mail-order sequences of DNA purchased over the internet.

Now, it is also the first lab known to have an accident involving a COVID-19-infected animal biting a researcher.

The synthesis of a full length infectious clone of SARS-CoV-2 drew swift criticism from a group of Chinese scientists and legal experts who published a paper addressing the dual-use problem:

“The so-called ‘dual-use’ problem in biology denotes that ‘the techniques needed to engineer a bioweapon are the same as those needed to pursue legitimate research.’ For example, the pathogen synthesis technique can be used to rescue patients, as well as to possibly manufacture bioweapons. Even if the motivation for developing this type of technology is noble, any deviation, misuse, or abuse during the research may result in calamitous consequences; for instance, an accidental leak from the laboratory, or the purposeful misuse by others.”

If it turns out that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a lab, it is likely that Baric and his colleagues Shi Zhengli at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Peter Daszak at EcoHealth Alliance will be implicated in its creation. Even dissident Chinese virologist Li-Meng Yan’s allegation that SARS-CoV-2 is a biological weapon intentionally released by the Chinese government relies heavily on Shi’s work, which can’t be separated from her collaborations with Baric and Daszak. 

Yan’s attempt to pin responsibility on the Chinese Communist Party, however, is problematic, as Shi, Baric and Daszak have been collaborating with―and are funded by―the U.S. government, including the Pentagon. There are also factual errors in Yan’s papers, that Alina Chan, a scientist at the Broad Institute, outlines here.  

Lab origin theory gaining ground

Regardless of “whodunnit,” the weight of the evidence has clearly shifted from a natural origin theory to a lab origin.

Scientists who support the natural origin theory of COVID-19 admit it has two major weaknesses. First, as a paper in the journal Cell notes, “the bat viruses most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 were sampled from animals in Yunnan province, over 1,500 km from Wuhan.” Second, the genetic differences between these bat viruses and SARS-CoV-2 “represents more than 20 years of sequence evolution.”

So far, there’s no evidence bridging these gaps. Pangolins have been ruled out as an intermediate host and magnifier of the SAR-CoV-2 virus as has the Hunan seafood market located near two Wuhan biomedical/bioweapons labs.

Even the Chinese Centers for Disease Control, in May of this year, after criticism from scientists all over the world, finally admitted that many of the earliest detected cases of COVID-19 had no connection whatsoever to the Huanan Market, and that therefore the market should be ruled out as the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This admission by the Chinese CDC, along with growing genetic evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was manipulated, utilizing genetic engineering and synthetic biology, explains why world opinion is shifting toward the belief that SARS-CoV-2 leaked out of a badly-managed, accident-prone lab in Wuhan China.

Just to know that this is how SARS-CoV-2 could have been created, should be enough to launch a mass movement to put a stop to all experiments that could make pathogens more dangerous. 

This movement may be arising in the U.S.

In an Economist/YouGov poll from May 2020, about half (49%) of Americans thought that a laboratory in China was definitely (18%) or probably (31%) the origin of the virus responsible for COVID- 19. Less than a third (28%) believe this is definitely (10%) or probably (18%) false, while more than one-fifth (22%) are not sure.

That was before Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier published his July 2020 article “COVID-19, SARS and Bats Coronaviruses Genomes Peculiar Homologous RNA Sequence,” in the International Journal of Research. In this important paper, Montagnier and his colleague Jean-Claude Perez provide evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is partially manmade, probably created in gain-of-function laboratory experiments. 

It was also before scientist-turned-detective Alina Chan was profiled by Rowan Jacobsen in Boston Magazine (“Could COVID-19 Have Escaped from a Lab?,” September 9, 2020).

Chan’s earlier work, “SARS-CoV-2 is well adapted for humans. What does this mean for re-emergence?” (May 02, 2020) concludes: “The lack of definitive evidence to verify or rule out adaptation in an intermediate host species, humans, or a laboratory, means that we need to take precautions against each scenario to prevent re-emergence.”

It was also before dissident Chinese scientists Li-Ming Yan appeared on Fox News with Tucker Carlson (Sep 15, 2020 - none of the other US networks have been willing to interview Yan). 

Gain-of-function ghouls

As bad as this pandemic’s been, SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the scariest thing that could leak from a lab.

The mad scientists genetically engineering pathogens to make them even more dangerous are now out of control, concocting gain-of-function ghouls that could soon be leaking from a lab near you. These include:

CoronaTHRAX™—An invention of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research that combines SARS-CoV-2 with anthrax. “It’s completely unnecessary and frankly bizarre,” Edward Hammond told Whitney Webb for her article, “Engineering Contagion: UPMC, Corona-Thrax And ‘The Darkest Winter’.” No one would know about this coronavirus-anthrax chimera if Hammond hadn’t been keeping tabs on recombinant DNA research by doggedly filing requests for information with the Institutional Biosafety Committees of U.S. research labs. It’s terrifying―but not surprising―that the Pitt Center would be doing such risky experiments. As Webb reports, its director W. Paul Duprex is a gain-of-function enthusiast who’s received significant funding from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. 

Airborne Ebola—Currently, Ebola only spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids and the scientific consensus is that it would be virtually impossible for Ebola to naturally acquire aerogenic infection potential. Moreover, military experts have concluded that Ebola is not an effective biological weapon for terrorists. Nevertheless, the Pentagon continues to research airborne Ebola. The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) first published their “Lethal experimental infections of rhesus monkeys by aerosolized Ebola virus” in 1995. (One author is Army Colonel Nancy Jaax of Hot Zone fame.)

More recently, defense contractor Battelle Memorial Institute subcontracted part of a $5.6 million National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases award to the University Of Texas Medical Branch At Galveston for “Evaluation of Ebolavirus in a Novel Ferret Model.” This is concerning because respiratory droplet transmission among ferrets is a proxy for human-to-human transmission. The Galveston researchers wrote in their 2016 paper, “The Domestic Ferret as a Lethal Infection Model for 3 Species of Ebolavirus,” that their success in killing ferrets with Ebola “demonstrates the utility of this intranasal infection model in potential mucosal-mediated transmission experiments or small-particle aerosol challenge, the latter being highly relevant for biodefense-related concerns.” 

Human Pork Vomit Virus—Undeterred by suspicions that work they did to make bat coronaviruses infectious to humans could have contributed to a lab origin of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the Baric-Daszak-Shi team is at it again, doing the same with a pig coronavirus known as swine acute diarrhea syndrome coronavirus (SADS-CoV).

This virus, which has been infecting pork farms throughout China since 2016, causes severe diarrhea and vomiting and has been especially deadly to young piglets. The Baric Lab infected human cells with a synthetic form of SADS-CoV and found that human lung and intestinal cells are susceptible to infection, with a higher rate of growth in cells found in the gut. Lab work on the wild type virus had previously shown that it could not bind to human cells. Peter Daszak edited Ralph Baric’s paper, “Swine acute diarrhea syndrome coronavirus replication in primary human cells reveals potential susceptibility to infection.”

Daszak and Shi were the first to identify SADS-CoV in 2018. Coincidentally, they found several bat coronavirus nearby with similar genomic sequences. The closest in overall genome identity to SADS-CoV was HKU2-CoV at 95%, but the S gene sequence identity was only 86%, suggesting that HKU2-CoV was not the direct progenitor of SADS-CoV, but that they may have originated from a common ancestor. Notably, Daszak and Shi found no human receptors that would allow entry for SADS-CoV, so Baric’s creation of a synthetic SADS-CoV that can attack human cells is a terrifying new development. 

Undead Viruses—In the 1990s, according to an NC State University news report:

“Jeffery K. Taubenberger and a team at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology decided to go through the tissue archive and find preserved tissue samples from soldiers who died from pneumonia-like symptoms during the [1918] pandemic. Taubenberger and his colleagues developed methods for extracting RNA from these tissue samples (something people didn’t think was possible at the time) and were able to pull out small bits and pieces of the influenza virus genome. Over several years, [using genetic engineering and synthetic biology] they were able to piece together the whole genome of the 1918 influenza virus – and they used that to resurrect this extinct virus [in 2005].” 

In 2014, another team of scientists, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, collected circulating avian influenza viruses from wild birds and used genetic engineering and synthetic biology to create “a virus composed of avian influenza viral segments with high homology to the 1918 virus” and then “conferred respiratory droplet transmission to the 1918-like avian virus in ferrets” just to make sure it had the capacity to infect humans.

The above examples are all drawn from published information and some are old news, research projects that were so controversial that they resulted in a federal funding moratorium on gain-of-function research from 2014 to 2017.

When the moratorium was lifted, the Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care & Oversight Review Committee (P3CO) was created to vet gain-of-function research under the “Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions about Proposed Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens.”

Dangerous trade secrets

The P3CO operates in complete secrecy.

Nothing was known about how the Framework was being implemented until 2019, when news of the first approved studies (to modify bird flu viruses in ways that could make them more risky to humans) was leaked to Science magazine. 

This was disturbing to scientists Marc Lipsitch and Tom Inglesby, both of whom had advocated for the Framework. In their Washington Post opinion piece, “The U.S. Is Funding Dangerous Experiments It Doesn’t Want You to Know About,” Lipsitch and Inglesby wrote:

“This secrecy means we don’t know how these requirements were applied, if at all, to the experiments now funded by the government. A spokesperson from the Department of Health and Human Services told Science magazine that the agency cannot make the reviews public because doing so might reveal proprietary information about the applicants’ plans that could help their competitors. This bureaucratic logic implies that it is more important to maintain the trade secrets of a few prominent scientists than to let citizens—who bear the risk if an accident happens and who fund their work—scrutinize the decisions of public officials about whether these studies are worth the risk.”

The Department of Health and Human Services “spokesperson” referred to by Lipsitch and Ingleby is Chistian Hassell, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

The risk Lipsitch and Ingleby accused Hassell of ignoring—“of infecting millions of people with a highly dangerous virus”—became all the more glaring once the SARS-COV-2 was circling the globe. 

For damage control, in January 2020, Hassell convened a meeting of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, ostensibly to address the demands Lipsitch and Inglesby were making for more transparency. 

But, Hassell revealed very little about the P3CO committee at this meeting, other than that Robert Kadlec, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, appointed Hassell chair and that, in addition to Kadlec, the committee reports to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Trump's science advisor.

Indefensible defense research

We still don’t know what gain-of-function ghouls the NIH is funding today—and, that’s probably the government agency engaged in gain-of-function research that is the most transparent. 

In addition, very little is known about what goes on at the Pentagon labs in 30 countries operated under the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Cooperative Biological Engagement Program. (We do know that DTRA funds EcoHealth Alliance’s virus hunting. In the last 6 months, EcoHealth has received $10 million (34 percent) of the $29.1 million DTRA has invested in scientific research.)

We’ll know even less about what happens at the new CIA Labs, but “bioscience and biotechnology” are listed under “What We Do.”

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency established a biological technologies office in 2014, after working in the sector for close to two decades. In carefully managed news releases, DARPA has revealed bits of information about: 

Prophecy—A program to predict all the possible ways a pathogenic virus might mutate, to sequence and synthesize predicted viral genomes, to test how they adapt and change in various hosts and, finally, to create "high energy evolutionary boundaries" that keep genetic mutations at bay. While investigations into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 have focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology, because of its location at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic and Shi Zhengli’s published work on the collection (with Peter Daszak) and manipulation (with Ralph Baric) of bat coronaviruses, DARPA’s Prophecy program could just as easily have produced a virus like SARS-CoV-2―just like Li-Meng Yan asserts that the CCP could have. With so many potential suspects, solving this whodunnit won’t be easy.

Insect Allies—This program to use virus-infected insects such as aphids or whiteflies to genetically engineer crops―while they’re growing―drew severe criticism from scientists who published a commentary in Science, “Agricultural research, or a new bioweapon system? Insect-delivered horizontal genetic alteration is concerning” and an accompanying website that was covered by the New York Times (“Viruses Spread by Insects to Crops Sound Scary. The Military Calls It Food Security.”) 

PREventing EMerging Pathogenic Threats (PREEMPT)—This project to disrupt the cross-species jump of viruses involves animal- or insect-targeted vaccines, gene editors and therapeutic interfering particles. These are so-called “transmissible interventions.” A great primer on this topic is this panel discussion, “Going Viral? Intentional dispersion of genetically modified viruses.” The idea is similar to what Oxitec is trying to do with their upcoming release of 750 million genetically engineered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Florida Keys. 

This species of mosquito can carry Zika, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever so, as an alternative to insecticides, a modified male mosquito, OX5034, will be released that produces female offspring that die off before growing large enough to bite and spread disease. So far, this hasn’t worked. A recent field study in Brazil showed that hybrid offspring were “sufficiently robust to be able to reproduce in nature.” Gene editors and gene drives are seen as a way to bring the idea to proof of concept by doing a better job of ensuring target traits get inherited. 

Therapeutic interfering particles are another disease-control strategy that has yet to be realized. It’s a particle of a virus that can interfere with and suppress a pathogenic virus. Ideally, it would be passed from host to host along with a virus to foil the virus’s infectivity. The reason why this hasn’t worked yet, is that an interfering virus that really does its job will ultimately suppress its own replication. 

DARPA is investigating the genetic engineering of transmissible viral vaccines as an alternative. An example is research funded under a $6.7 million DARPA grant, Prediction of Spillover Potential and Interventional En Masse Animal Vaccination to Prevent Emerging Pathogen Threats in Current and Future Zones of US Military Operation, that suggests transmissible vaccines to control Lassa virus in rodent populations. 

While most people bristle at the idea of genetically engineering wild animals, even insects, or releasing genetically engineered viruses to target food crops or animal populations, even pests or disease vectors, the scarier scenario is that, once these techniques are perfected on plants, insects and animals, they’ll be turned on us, either deliberately or by accident.

If you’re concerned about gain-of-function ghouls, please sign our petition for an Immediate Global Ban on Gain-of-Function ‘Biomedical’ and ‘Biodefense’ Research. 

If you’re a scientist or lawyer, please sign the Statement by Scientists, Lawyers and Policy Experts on Why We Need a Global Moratorium on the Creation of Potential Pandemic Pathogens (PPPs) Through Gain-of-Function Experiments. 

Alexis Baden-Mayer is OCA’s political director. 

Ronnie Cummins is co-founder of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and Regeneration International, and the author of “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Food, Farming, Climate and a Green New Deal.”

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