EcoHealth Alliance Response to Inaccuracies in Professor van der Merwe’s 9th March 2023 Letter to the Financial Times re. COVID-19 Origins
March 15 2023 – Professor van der Merwe’s 9th March letter in The Financial Times (https://www.ft.com/content/1eafa0dc-1ce3-4a86-a35e-7132b505e7a4) contains factual inaccuracies that undermine his argument.
First, he implies 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 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/).