Monday the 9th November 2015 was an unremarkable day in world events. It was sunny and warm in Britain – 13C in London; the Russians were banned from athletics for doping offences; Seaworld was under pressure for its treatment of killer whales; a painting by the Italian artist, Modigliani became the second most expensive piece of art – reaching $170m at auction – and Justin Bieber released the single “Love Yourself” – which would earn him a Grammy Award the following year.
But on that same day, a respected scientific journal published a paper by a group of researchers from the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina about a recent discovery they had made whilst experimenting with a group of viruses, derived from samples of bat excrement.
Their paper examined the potential for a particular strain of coronavirus – similar to that which had created the SARS and MERS outbreaks – that one of the researchers had isolated in horseshoe bats in Shitou Cave near Yunnan, China – where they conducted intense sampling during different seasons over five consecutive years.
Dr Shi Zhengli—a virologist – who is often called China’s “bat woman” by her colleagues because of her virus-hunting expeditions in bat caves, was one of the authors. She was on secondment to the UNC during the research, which was co-funded by the US military bio-warfare division at Fort Detrick.
In essence, the paper established the potential for a reverse engineering a coronavirus called SHC014-CoV and increasing its lethality through a series of modifications to its structure. This process is called “gain of function”.
In 2012, a Dutch virologist, Ron Fouchier, published details of an experiment on the recent H5N1 strain of bird flu. This strain was extremely deadly, killing an estimated 60% of humans it infected – far beyond even the Spanish flu. Yet its inability to pass from human to human had so far prevented a pandemic. Fouchier wanted to find out whether (and how) H5N1 could naturally develop this ability. He passed the disease through a series of 10 ferrets, which are commonly used as a model for how influenza affects humans. By the time it passed to the final ferret, his strain of H5N1 had become directly transmissible between mammals.
The work caused fierce controversy. Much of this was focused on the information contained in his work. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity ruled that his paper had to be stripped of some of its technical details before publication, to limit the ability of bad actors to cause a pandemic. And the Dutch government claimed that the research broke EU law on exporting information useful for bioweapons. But it is not the possibility of misuse that concerns me here. Fouchier’s research provides a clear example of well-intentioned scientists enhancing the destructive capabilities of pathogens known to threaten global catastrophe.
But the USNSABB were silent when the researchers from UNC published their paper in 2015 and it remains online today. Just like Fouchier’s paper three years earlier – it provided a blueprint for ‘bad actors’ to initiate a pandemic.
The abstract for the paper is instructive:
“The emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-CoV underscores the threat of cross-species transmission events leading to outbreaks in humans. Here we examine the disease potential of a SARS-like virus, SHC014-CoV, which is currently circulating in Chinese horseshoe bat populations. Using the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system, we generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone. The results indicate that group 2b viruses encoding the SHC014 spike in a wild-type backbone can efficiently use multiple orthologs of the SARS receptor human angiotensin converting enzyme II (ACE2), replicate efficiently in primary human airway cells and achieve in vitro titers equivalent to epidemic strains of SARS-CoV. Additionally, in vivo experiments demonstrate replication of the chimeric virus in mouse lung with notable pathogenesis. Evaluation of available SARS-based immune-therapeutic and prophylactic modalities revealed poor efficacy; both monoclonal antibody and vaccine approaches failed to neutralize and protect from infection with CoVs using the novel spike protein. On the basis of these findings, we synthetically re-derived an infectious full-length SHC014 recombinant virus and demonstrate robust viral replication both in vitro and in vivo. “
The paper describes how they achieved the dramatic gain of function by manipulating the genome sequence of a SHC014-CoV virus obtained from Fort Detrick, then combining various intermediary host pathways that enable cross-species transmission with enhanced adaptations, to increase its lethality.
These experiments – even in military laboratories – are extremely controversial. President Obama called a moratorium on gain of function experiments in 2014 – and the authors’ make comment to the risks in their summary.
“In addition to offering preparation against future emerging viruses, this approach must be considered in the context of the US government–mandated pause on gain-of-function (GOF) studies. On the basis of previous models of emergence, the creation of chimeric viruses such as SHC014-MA15 was not expected to increase pathogenicity, (however) relative to the Urbani spike–MA15 CoV, SHC014-MA15 shows a gain in pathogenesis.
On the basis of these findings, scientific review panels may deem similar studies building chimeric viruses based on circulating strains too risky to pursue, as increased pathogenicity in mammalian models cannot be excluded.“
But the information or blueprint was there for any ‘bad actors’ to exploit, should they so wish. However, there is also another, more reasonable and innocent explanation, if the virus eventually is determined to be of chimeric origin.
Dr Shi left UNC in September last year and returned to the Key Laboratory of Special Pathogens and Biosafety at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is located about 200m from the animal market, reported to be the source of the current outbreak. She now specialises in horseshoe bat coronavirus pathology and is a leading authority on gain potentiation in engineered methodology.
It is certainly a coincidence that the first victims of a mysterious fatal pneumonia were recorded in Wuhan in workers from a food market – a short distance away from a BSL-4 laboratory just a few weeks after Dr Shi returned from the USA. But this would have likely gone unnoticed, had it not been for the Department of Justice – who arrested another scientist – a Harvard University Professor in Chemical Biology, specialising in nanotechnology – and issued a press release in February this year.
Last week, the authors of the paper issued an update.
30 March 2020
Editors’ note, March 2020: We are aware that this article is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus.
When scientists use the words “believe” and “most likely” in defending a hypothesis – particularly when they are themselves the focus of understandable speculation, it is surely time for a very transparent independent investigation – and full public disclosure.
Most countries operate clandestine biowarfare research facilities – the UK has Porton Down, USA has Fort Detrick- Mossad run several as do Russia and China. It really doesn’t matter if it were accidentally released by Chinese scientists working at Wuhan – or a deliberate release by China – or any of the other actors, who wanted to exploit the circumstances to punish China. What matters is that all these secret facilities – & all of the intelligence & security agencies with their nefarious agendas, are dismantled immediately and never resurrected.
Whatever the excuse or justification, we must never again allow the irresponsible and dangerous experimentation with any element – biological, chemical or nuclear – that can has such catastrophic consequences if misused or when mistakes are made.
Now is not the time, but after, when we start to rebuild, there will be a thorough examination of all the activities and experiments, conducted in secret, but in our name, by governments and their agencies – and we will learn from this and never, ever permit these circumstances to arise again.