EcoHealth Alliance Letter to The Daily Telegraph re. their story on Professor van der Merwe’s inaccurate comments on EcoHealth Alliance’s work and COVID-19 Origins
March 15 2023 – Sarah Knapton’s 10 March report on “Scientists dismissed Covid lab leak theory ‘as they feared ban on high-risk experiments’ (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/03/10/scientists-dismissed-covid-lab-leak-theory-feared-ban-high-risk/ ) uncritically reports claims contained in a 9 March letter to the Financial Times by Professor Anton van der Merwe of the University of Oxford. I am writing to correct the record – my organization, EcoHealth Alliance, collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology on NIH-funded research on SARS-related coronaviruses in China. Telegraph readers deserve to know that while Professor van der Merwe has the right to his own opinions, he cannot construct his own facts, nor should Telegraph reports present those opinions as fact.
Professor van der Merwe’s 9th March letter contains factual inaccuracies that undermine his argument. First, he implies (as Sarah Knapton reports) that genetically modifying an animal virus to infect human cells (or ‘humanised’ mice) is de facto a “gain of function” experiment. This is incorrect. Such experiments fall under the US HHS P3CO regulations (https://www.phe.gov/s3/dualuse/documents/p3co.pdf) which define gain-of-function research as likely to create new viral strains with “enhanced transmissibility or virulence” for viruses that are already (1) “likely highly transmissible and likely capable of wide and uncontrollable spread in human populations;” and (2) “likely highly virulent and likely to cause significant morbidity and/or mortality in humans.” The SARS-related research conducted under NIH funding prior to the pandemic at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) only dealt with bat coronaviruses that had never been shown to infect people, let alone cause morbidity and/or mortality in humans, and therefore by definition was not gain-of-function research. This was confirmed by NIH in a July 7th 2016 letter to EcoHealth Alliance now made public stating “NIAID is in agreement that the work proposed … is not subject to the GoF research funding pause” and repeated by NIH spokesperson Elizabeth Deatrick (https://theintercept.com/2021/09/09/covid-origins-gain-of-function-research/ ).
Secondly, he states that these experiments “were being performed in Wuhan on SARS-CoV-2 like viruses”. This is incorrect. Experiments at WIV involved bat coronaviruses related to the original SARS-CoV, not SARS-CoV-2, and there is no evidence that any lab in the world had a virus genetically close enough to SARS-CoV-2 that is could be manipulated to become that virus. As then NIH Director Francis Collins stated on October 20, 2021: “Analysis of published genomic data and other documents from the grantee demonstrate that the naturally occurring bat coronaviruses studied under the NIH grant are genetically far distant from SARS-CoV-2 and could not possibly have caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Any claims to the contrary are demonstrably false.” ( https://www.nih.gov/about-nih/who-we-are/nih-director/statements/statement-misinformation-about-sars-cov-2-origins ).
Professor van der Merwe also suggests, as Sarah Knapton tells your readers, that it is unlikely that identifying potentially dangerous organisms in the wild will help prevent pandemics. A One Health strategy for pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response begins with smart surveillance to identify potential pathways of transmission and to take actions to control the risks of zoonotic spillover. Surely those risks justify undertaking the kind of research that was supported by the U.S. NIH in China before the pandemic, especially when we know that this mechanism was behind SARS, MERS, and – most likely – COVID-19 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9595398/ ).
Dr. Peter Daszak
New York, USA