Did a US funded biotechnology experiment ignite the worst pandemic of modern times?

May 28, 2024
Closeup image of vial, syringe, globe and text DISEASE X on table. Medical and healthcare concept

In a momentous development, the US Government has suspended funding from the biotech company increasingly linked to the origins of the Covid pandemic that slew seven million people.

The decision by the Biden Administration to blacklist the EcoHealth Alliance is a major step towards sheeting home the responsibility for a biotechnology experiment that appears to have gone horribly wrong.

In what increasingly looks like one of the worst disasters in scientific history, the EcoHealth Alliance has been linked by US Congressional inquiries, as well as by the FBI and CIA, with experiments carried out at Wuhan, China, into wild bat viruses genetically engineered to be more deadly to humans.

Somehow, by means still not clearly elucidated, it now appears possible that one of these viruses escaped from an inadequately-secure lab to become the Covid pandemic. This infected 775 million people worldwide, killing at least 7m of them by the time most countries began to suppress the statistics.

Inquiry into the origins of Covid were long frustrated by what now looks like a deliberate coverup by a small number of prominent virologists, designed to prevent governments and the public from learning the origins of the plague and banning the deadly experiments which may have led to it. The secrecy surrounding it has been aggravated by the fears of both the US and Chinese governments that they could be held responsible, hence their disinclination to co-operate fully with inquiry into the virus’s origins.

Now however the US Government, following a Congressional probe, appears to have acknowledged where the weight of evidence is trending – and taken belated action by banning the company involved from obtaining further US public research funding, at least for a time.

That researchers – deliberately or inadvertently – may have ignited the worst pandemic of modern times highlights the extreme risks of certain contemporary scientific research, experiments which – as things stand – there is no organised attempt to prevent.

Pandemic disease is one of the ten interacting ‘megathreats’ that imperil the future of human civilisation and our species. Humans are already at enough risk from natural pathogens like ‘flu, unleashed by our own behaviour and practices, without synthesising even deadlier strains. Yet a part of modern virology is bent on such a task.

What appears to have happened is that scientists from the EcoHealth Alliance obtained US research funding to make chimeric (ie genetically engineered) viruses from natural bat viruses found in China that were more deadly and infectious to humans and test them in mice engineered with human lung tissue. To save money, the work was carried out in the Wuhan Institute of Virology under conditions too insecure to contain such dangerous viruses.

The nature of the work was foreshadowed in a paper published back in 2015, where the scientists “generated and characterised a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone”. They tested it and found it confirmed “the ability of viruses with the SHC014 spike to infect human airway cells”. The presence of an anomalous spike protein in a bat coronavirus is one of the pieces of evidence that Covid-19 is a human artefact, not a natural evolution. They have subsequently revealed they made at least two such synthetic viruses and Chinese researchers may have made more.

Why, one may fairly ask, would the US and Chinese scientists do anything so completely crazy?

Part of the answer may lie in simple scientific arrogance: “we did it to prove we could”. But another motive may have been money. By creating the next major pandemic bug, some scientists were hoping to snatch a lead over rivals in the race to develop the hugely profitable patents, diagnostics, vaccines and antivirals that such a discovery would call for.

In a nutshell, seven million humans may have died so someone could get rich quick.

How – and if – the virus escaped from the lab remains unclear – and without the full co-operation of Chinese and US authorities, is liable to remain so. Given the murky involvement of both Chinese and US bioweapons researchers in the project, both countries have reason to remain stumm. Deliberate release is the least likely of the various possible routes. Accidental escape is highly probable given the low security employed. Fingers have been pointed at WIV researchers who allegedly became infected.

Since 2000 there have been 38 cases of deadly pathogens escaping from so-called secure laboratories round the world, and many hundreds of lesser biosecurity breaches. So, escape is not only commonplace, but inevitable. Despite this, virology continues to forge ahead in the fabrication of ever-deadlier organisms.

Concerned they might be blamed, a group of senior virologists, under the urging of US NIH boss Anthony Fauci, rushed out a ‘scientific paper’ stating unambiguously “SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”. This ‘proximal origins’ paper threw a smokescreen in the path of objective scientific inquiry into the source of the pandemic and split the virology profession in two. Several of its authors, it later transpired, had doubts about their own conclusions.

However the paper had one clear message: by distancing science from the mishap it was placing the prestige of virology above the lives and safety of millions.

Where all this began is lost in the history of science, but a watershed moment occurred during the 1980s, in the light of the exploding global AIDS pandemic. The eminent US biologist and Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederburg, concerned at the limited funding available to study potential new risks, convened a meeting of senior virologists to explore the dangers of emerging pathogens with pandemic potential (PPP). This meeting flagged several frightening new possibilities. More importantly, it triggered a flood of media reports, popular science books, and fictional movies that galvanised public opinion and policy action – and virology, which had been starving in the dark, was transformed into a gold rush. Commercialism, rather than public safety, became a key driver of research.

This laid the ground not only for a string of virological triumphs as various plague organisms were successfully identified and then suppressed – but also for a string of increasingly dangerous experiments, as scientists probed the darker side of nature. And then, unsatisfied, began tinkering to make it deadlier still. The lethal experiments went under the Orwellian title ‘gain of function’ (GoF), scientific doublespeak for ‘more deadly to people’.

A few examples will suffice:

  • In 2001, researchers reported creating a deadlier strain of mousepox virus that overcame genetic resistance.
  • In 2011, a team from the University of Wisconsin engineered easier-to-spread strains of a deadly bird flu, H5N1.
  • In 2013 a Chinese team injected two different strains of bird flu into the same human cells to see if they could create a super-strain.
  • In 2013 a Dutch team from Erasmus University proposed engineering the H7N9 bird flu strain, to make it more infectious.
  • In 2014 the US Obama Government paused no fewer than 18 different experiments to make the emerging pandemic virus MERS more deadly.
  • In 2019 – the year Covid broke out – the US Government lifted the temporary pause on GoF research and called for more proposals.
  • In 2023, the US Government banned all US research funding involving the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Some virologists argue that GoF research is vital to understand the likely behaviour of ‘new’ strains of pandemic viruses – and that is its overt justification. Others, however, have branded it dangerous, reckless, and irresponsible. Authorities have swayed between banning it and giving it the full go-ahead.

The big ethical question is whether any piece of research is worth trading for 7 million human lives. Unlike medical doctors, ethics rarely form part of the training of virologists. The ethics of a given piece of research are usually supervised by members of the same profession or by their institution and are seldom transparent to the public or government. Nobody seems to be asking the question: could this experiment kill millions? The assumption is usually that it is safe.

All this would be of less account, were it not for a chilling historical parallel. When the late Oxford Prof William Hamilton sought to establish an objective scientific inquiry into the origins of HIV/AIDS, his attempt was smothered by a similar scientific smokescreen as accompanied the Covid origin diversion. Interestingly, several of the same virologists were involved in both cases.

HIV/AIDS has so far killed 34 million people – but how humans got it remains undetermined. The weight of circumstantial evidence points to a possible mishap involving an experimental poliovaccine given to a million Africans in the 1950s. (It is an uncontested fact that, in the 1960s tens of millions of people worldwide received a poliovaccine contaminated by a then-unknown monkey virus, SV40).However, the ‘official’ scientific view insists that AIDS is the fault of African hunting culture, not a gigantic mis-cue by western science. Calls for objective scientific inquiry have been dismissed for almost half a century.

Regardless of the origins of HIV and Covid-19, tinkering with viruses is an extremely dangerous activity, with potential for many millions of casualties. Experience indicates it cannot be contained, even in high security labs. Pandemic disease is one of the ten great threats to the human future, comparable to nuclear weapons, climate change, ecocide and global poisoning.

Australia’s Prof Colin Butler, a founder of Biosafety Now!, says “Despite the major risks to the public, dangerous “gain-of-function” research that enhances potential pandemic pathogens (ePPP research) is subject to almost no national or international oversight. Moreover, to date, the public largely has been unaware of, and excluded from, discussion of this threat.” His organisation is calling for legally-binding, national- and international oversight to foresee, regulate and minimise the risks.

The problem is that many virologists persistently appear to underrate the dangers and belittle those who raise them. This was glaringly illustrated in plans by researchers at Colorado State University and EcoHealth to open a giant new ‘bat-lab’ sourcing bats and their viruses from all over Asia – a terrifying potential source of future pandemics.

The real lesson from the Covid experience may be that virology cannot be left to administer its own ‘ethics’. Without public supervision, individuals and money-driven corporates will continue to take immense, unjustifiable risks.

Killing 7 or 34 million people, even by honest mistake, is no trivial error – and, if it has happened, the world needs to know how and why.

Experiments (and labs) that risk it should be outlawed.

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