Washington Examiner Op-Ed: Dangerous virus research continues to endanger lives

Too many people died needlessly from COVID-19 because the scientists who do dangerous research on viruses and the federal bureaucrats who fund it failed to make it clear to U.S. public health authorities that the virus was probably a product of that dangerous research.

Why do we believe this could have mitigated the impact of the virus? Because one country took that step and stopped COVID-19 in its tracks.

New documents obtained from a Freedom Of Information Act request revealed a 2018 grant proposal, written by American and Chinese scientists, to use a synthetic biology technique called gain-of-function to do what nature had never done before: create a virus that can rapidly spread among people upon first contact.

This 2018 grant application detailed design features for a synthetic virus. Researchers would start with a bat virus from specific caves in southern China, keep its genetic diversity within 25% of the first SARS virus, give it a human-specific feature to enhance infectivity, and teach it to infect human cells in the laboratory.

And though the applicants told the Department of Defense they would conduct the research in the U.S., they privately wrote that it could be moved to the Wuhan Institute of Virology after funding was secured. China conducts virus research at lower safety standards. They wrote that U.S. scientists would “freak out” if they knew.

The scientists who wrote the grant were Ralph Baric from the University of North Carolina; Peter Daszak, president of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance; Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology; and Linfa Wang from the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.

On Dec. 28, 2019, a National Institutes of Health repository for genetic sequences received its first COVID-19 virus genome. The sequence was uploaded at a People’s Liberation Army-affiliated institute by a Chinese scientist who also received U.S. government funding through the EcoHealth Alliance. It would have taken only hours to run computer tests and see that the virus had all of the grant’s design features.

Instead, we know from Baric’s sworn testimony that he never mentioned the COVID-19 virus looked suspiciously like the chimeric virus that he, Daszak, and Shi had sought a grant to create.  In fact, in February 2020, when Baric met with Dr. Anthony Fauci, their sworn testimony indicates that the similarity between the proposed chimeric virus creation and COVID-19 was never discussed. It is hard to imagine such an omission, if true, being an accident.

The omission, however, does raise the question of whether Baric was attempting to cover up any links between himself and Shi’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Baric, Daszak, and anyone with knowledge of the research taking place should have quickly gotten the word out that COVID-19 appeared to be able to cause immediate, rapid human-to-human spread and that public health policies and decisions needed to be set with that expectation in mind.

Why is that so important? Because doctors and infectious disease experts would normally believe that the spillover of a new pathogen into humans, while certainly serious for the people infected, would rarely be a pandemic-level event. A virus coming from nature would not spread easily among humans because it had perfected living and spreading in an animal host and was not adapted for humans. In fact, it takes natural infections months, or even years, to be able to spread easily from one human to another. For example, another COVID-19-like virus called MERS first jumped from camels to humans about a decade ago but still hasn’t perfected human-to-human spread.

But if those scientists knew that rapid human-to-human spread might be wired into a virus by laboratory design, the most effective immediate step would be to target all flights into the U.S. from Wuhan for on-board fever and symptom testing. This would have been the most modest of inconveniences for the public. Yet there were only a handful of such flights.

Why do we think such a simple measure would have been effective? Because Taiwan did just that, starting on Dec. 31, 2019. Taiwan should have had the greatest number of cases outside of China because, before the pandemic, about 6% of its population on any given day was visiting mainland China, traveling for business or pleasure. But by starting to screen passengers from Wuhan early and putting the sick ones in quarantine, Taiwan experienced only six deaths by April 2020, compared to 142,370 in the U.S. Normalizing for population size, Taiwan had 99.8% fewer COVID deaths than the U.S. throughout 2020.

This failed opportunity by everyone involved would be bad enough if it were simply incompetence, but it appears deliberate.

For more than a decade, the scientists conducting gain-of-function work and the bureaucrats who fund them with our tax dollars blindly believed that this dangerous research would someday benefit humanity. They knew that if it became known that the COVID-19 virus came from a lab, this research would be stopped. Only a well-coordinated effort from the highest levels of the NIH and the National Institue of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to act as if this was natural, to act as if this virus must have come from nature, and therefore to not take the simplest steps of mitigation, could preserve this research.

Congress should continue to hold hearings on the origin of COVID-19, with a new focus on the 2018 DOD grant that looks like a blueprint for the virus. But while this happens, Congress should install an independent commission to review and defund dangerous virus research immediately. Future lives very well might depend on it.