Questions About US-Funded Research at the Wuhan Lab

Image of the coronavirus on a blue background.

The debate surrounding the origins of the coronavirus simply refuses to die. (Image: Fernandozhiminaicela via Pixabay)

The debate surrounding the origins of the coronavirus simply refuses to die as congressional testimony over the issue of U.S. money being used to fund research at the Wuhan lab in China leads to ongoing allegations and denials during congressional testimonies.

Several voices both within and outside the U.S. government have been pointing fingers at China for its role in spreading it outside the Wuhan lab, but China’s refusal to share information from the early days of the outbreak and the country’s lack of transparency have been major hurdles.

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Investigations are ongoing into the source of the virus

The investigation into the root of the mutating virus is ongoing. U.S. intelligence officials are nearing the end of a 90-day investigation into the origins of COVID-19 that was ordered by U.S. President Joe Biden in late May and have drafted a classified report that is now in the preliminary review process.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently urged China to share the raw data from its earliest cases of the coronavirus, stating that: “It is vitally important to know how the COVID-19 pandemic began, to set an example for establishing the origins of all future animal-human spillover events.”

President Biden speaking.
U.S. intelligence officials are nearing the end of a 90-day investigation into the origins of Covid-19 that was ordered by U.S. President Joe Biden in late May. (Image: The White House)

Concerns over past US investments

A section of U.S. politicians believes that some of the genetic research on viruses that was carried out in the Whuan lab was done by means of U.S. funds. The report, unveiled by a number of Republican lawmakers, allegedly has evidence that the lab was working to alter the coronavirus strains and the money was provided by the U.S.

The issue was raised by Republican Senator Rand Paul, who said that U.S. money was used to fund gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab. This allegation, however, has been firmly denied by U.S. infectious diseases chief Dr. Anthony Fauci. The duo has been engaged in a fierce battle of words during Dr. Fauci’s congressional testimonies.

Questions emerge regarding gain of function research at the Wuhan lab

Gain-of-function is a controversial research method that involves manipulating pathogens to give them a new aspect, such as making viruses more transmissible or dangerous to humans. It involves experimenting with virus strains and altering their genetic structure to make them more lethal and enhance the mutation capacity.

The coronavirus strain, allegedly modified in the Wuhan lab, was deliberately made more powerful and contagious to target humans, according to the report. Scientists usually justify the potential risks of such research helps them better prepare for future outbreaks. They also use such research to prepare vaccines as well.

However, Dr. Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the science journal Nature that he believed most gain-of-function studies “have done almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemics — yet they risked creating an accidental pandemic.”

Republican Senator Rand Paul said that U.S. money was used to fund gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab.
Republican Senator Rand Paul said that U.S. money was used to fund gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab. (Image: Herney via Pixabay)

The reality is the U.S. did contribute some funds for spearheading scientific studies in Chinese labs. Dr. Fauci serves as the director of NIAID and he is also a part of the NIH. This entity provided funds to an organization that was in alliance with the well-known Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The entity, EcoHealth Alliance, was given a grant in 2014 for research into coronaviruses found in bats. Approximately US$3.7 million was given to EcoHealth, while the Wuhan Institute of Virology received US$600,000. In 2019, this project received a renewal for 5 more years. However, the coronavirus pandemic prompted the Trump administration to thwart it midway. 

A heated exchange

Senator Paul and Dr. Fauci engaged in a heated exchange during a recent congressional hearing about a study that involved Chinese scientists substituting spike proteins in bat coronaviruses to gain new insight into the origin of SARS.

Senator Paul argued the work did constitute gain-of-function because they created “novel, artificial viruses that could infect humans out of animal viruses.” He cited an article that quoted Dr. Richard Ebright, a chemistry and chemical biology professor at Rutgers University, saying the experiment “epitomizes” gain-of-function research.

Partially sponsored by the National Institute of Health, Senator Paul saw the research as proof Dr. Fauci lied to Congress and an allegation that the public health expert vehemently denied. Dr. Fauci said: “Senator Paul, you do not know what you’re talking about, and I want to say that officially.” I totally resent the lie you are now propagating.”

Dr. Fauci was referring to the accusation of the senator that Dr. Fauci was responsible for over 4 million deaths worldwide. The EcoHealth Alliance and NIH have also denied the theory that they funded or gave support to such studies to be conducted in Chinese labs. 

Dr. Fauci talking at NIH.
Senator Paul and Dr. Fauci engaged in a heated exchange during a recent congressional hearing. (Image: NIAID via Flickr)

A divided scientific community

The scientific community remains somewhat divided on the issue as Dr. Ebright told National Review in May: “The Wuhan lab used NIH funding to construct novel chimeric SARS-related coronaviruses able to infect human cells and laboratory animals. This is high-risk research that creates new potential pandemic pathogens. This research matches — indeed epitomizes — the definition of ‘gain of function research of concern’ for which federal funding was ‘paused’ in 2014-2017.”

Dr. Lipsitch brought together hundreds of scientists and experts in law and ethics in 2014 to call for a moratorium on gain-of-function experiments that could create highly transmissible, novel strains of dangerous viruses in laboratories. He wrote in a Twitter thread that Senator Paul had “FALSELY” claimed that the working group Lipsitch assembled had “characterized work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology as gain-of-function.”

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