EcoHealth Alliance Statement Correcting Inaccuracies in Written Testimony by Professor Jeffrey Sachs to the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, March 6th, 2023
Professor Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University) submitted written testimony to the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic (SSCP) of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee on March 6th. His statement has been made available to the public at https://www.congress.gov/118/meeting/house/115426/documents/HHRG-118-VC00-20230308-SD007.pdf
Professor Sachs’s statement contains several assertions about the work of the EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) that are inaccurate. The purpose of this statement is to set the record straight.
1. In his written testimony to the SSCP, Professor Sachs states (p. 1) that the Lancet Commission that he chaired came to the conclusion that “both a laboratory origin and a natural origin [of SARS-COV-2] are possible.” Most would agree with this statement. But he also raises the specter that if COVID-19 emerged from a laboratory leak, it may have been for two reasons – (1) that “dangerous research” on coronaviruses was done through U.S.-China collaboration; and (2) that that “dangerous research” was gain-of-function. Neither of those assumptions is based in fact.
2. Professor Sachs goes on to say (p. 1) that “If indeed the virus emerged from a laboratory, it reveals the remarkable danger of ongoing gain-of-function research largely unknown to the Congress and public.”
Professor Sachs makes two assumptions here without facts to support them. First, he assumes that the work being conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) under funding by NIH and in collaboration with EcoHealth Alliance was “gain-of-function.” The NIH defines “gain-of-function” as research that will 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.” Because the SARS-related research conducted by EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology dealt with bat coronaviruses that had never been shown to infect people, let alone cause significant morbidity and/or mortality in humans, by definition it was not gain-of-function research. This was confirmed by NIH on July 7, 2016, in a letter to EcoHealth Alliance made public via Freedom of Information Act requests stating “NIAID is in agreement that the work proposed … is not subject to the GoF research funding pause” (italics added). This was also stated by NIH spokesperson Elizabeth Deatrick and reported here (https://theintercept.com/2021/09/09/covid-origins-gain-of-function-research/ ).
Thus, the evidence shows that the research being conducted in China and the US on coronaviruses prior to COVID-19 was reviewed, assessed, and judged not to be ‘gain-of-function’ and likely to generate information of value for understanding and addressing threats due to emerging viruses. Rather than being a risk, this research was considered critical in learning how to prevent – not cause – an outbreak. Furthermore, despite Professor Sachs’s unsupported assertion, there is no evidence that any lab in the world had SARS-CoV-2 itself, or a close enough relative, to allow a lab leak to lead to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Second, Professor Sachs suggests (p. 1) that this research is “largely unknown to the Congress and public.” That is simply not true. The methods and results from this collaborative research were conducted with full knowledge of the funding agency, and EHA routinely shared all unpublished data from its research in China with the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases program office in progress reports, as required by the regular process for NIH oversight of grantee activities. Genetic sequences relevant to our bat coronavirus research were routinely deposited with NIH’s GenBank database, making them publicly available. Even after the EHA’s R01 grant covering the work in China was terminated in April 2020, EHA continued to file annual reports with the NIH to provide unpublished data. In addition, EHA submitted analyses of our NIH-supported work for publication in leading international peer-reviewed journals, including results of genetic recombination experiments with bat coronaviruses that were made public years before the emergence of COVID-19. Those dozens of publications have been the principal way that EHA made the results of our research in China available to the scientific community for independent analysis and review.
3. Professor Sachs claims (p. 2) that the presence of a furin cleavage site (FCS) in SARS-COV-2 is itself evidence of a laboratory origin and further suggests (p. 2) that the research to insert an FCS into a SARS-related coronavirus proposed in a 2018 proposal to DARPA by EcoHealth Alliance was “quite possibly” carried out using other resources. In fact, the grant proposal was not funded, and the work was never done, therefore it cannot have played any role in the origin of SARS-COV-2. Any other conclusion about that proposal is baseless speculation.
Moreover, virologists who have assessed this evidence – Professor Sachs is an economist, not a virologist — do not rule out an evolutionary origin of the FCS in SARS-COV-2. (Robert F. Garry, “SARS-COV-2 furin cleavage site was not engineered,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 29, 2022; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2211107119)
4. Dr. Sachs continues to use these mistaken assumptions in taking NIH leadership to task (pp. 2-3) for not revealing “gain-of-function” research to Congress and the public. But, as noted above, the research that EHA did with NIH support was not gain-of-function, nor was it kept hidden. He further reveals his lack of understanding of the rules and regulations for virological research when he suggests that the NIH should have disclosed a proposal to DARPA, which is part of the Department of Defense, a different agency. But, as noted above, DARPA rejected this proposal, and the work was never done.
5. Professor Sachs makes another false allegation on page 3 of his testimony, claiming that “US and Chinese scientists had continued to collect and manipulate large numbers of previously unreported SARS-related coronaviruses.” This is not correct. US and Chinese scientists worked almost entirely with genetic sequences from bat samples, not live coronaviruses. There were only a handful of SARS-related coronaviruses in culture, and these had already been made public via the scientific literature and their genetic sequences uploaded into the publicly available NIH Genbank database prior to the pandemic.
6. Professor Sachs also claims (p. 3) that EcoHealth Alliance ‘knows much more than it has told the public and Congress about US-Chinese collaboration on the genetic manipulation of SARS-related viruses.” In fact, as noted above, details of all experiments concerning this work were reported to NIH and have already been made public.
7. Professor Sachs also alleges (p. 3) that EcoHealth Alliance may have an electronic database of SARS-like viruses that would have clues for the origins of SARS-CoV-2. As we have stated publicly, all sequences of SARSr-CoVs that EcoHealth Alliance has conducted work on in China have already been made public via scientific publications, reported to the appropriate US Federal agencies, and their sequences uploaded to the publicly available NIH Genbank database. There is no secret electronic database of which we are aware.
8. Professor Sachs ends his written testimony with a list of questions (pp. 4-5) that he feels need to be investigated further. We comment on only two of these here:
In Question #9, Professor Sachs frames the unfunded DARPA proposal along with “other ongoing USG-supported gain-of-function research.” With respect to the DARPA proposal, this question has been asked and answered: because the grant proposal was not funded, and the work was never done, it is not “ongoing”.
In Question #10, Professor Sachs again implies that a DARPA grant proposal that was not funded and the research never done is somehow evidence for genetic manipulation of SARS-related coronaviruses, and reiterates his mistaken assumption that there were “large numbers of previously unreported SARSr-CoVs,” despite there being no evidence in support of this. His question is irrelevant with respect to the “Proximal Origins” paper, since it is based on erroneous assumptions.