Article on COVID-19 Origins Report from Republicans on U.S. Senate HELP Committee Presents Unsupported Claims and Debunked Allegations about Research Conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology
April 18 2023 – Michael Ginsberg’s article in the Daily Caller, “’Dark, Dark Tunnel”” GOP Senators Report Second Lab Leak from Wuhan Institute of Virology”(April 17, https://dailycaller.com/2023/04/17/roger-marshall-senate-help-committee-report-lab-leak-wuhan-institute-virology/ ) claims to provide insights into COVID-19 origins based on a new report from the Senate HELP Republicans (https://www.marshall.senate.gov/wp-content/uploads/MWG-FDR-Document-04-11-23-EMBARGOED.pdf). Ginsberg begins inauspiciously by noting the report is based on a “preponderance of circumstantial evidence,” when what is required to resolve questions about COVID-19 origins is real evidence about how and when COVID-19 emerged in China.
An early draft of this minority report was released last fall and widely criticized because its conclusion that the pandemic was “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident” ran “exactly counter to the overwhelming weight of opinion among scientists in the fields of virology and evolutionary biology,” ignoring a growing body of scientific “evidence that the spillover was centered on the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China, where animals susceptible to COVID infection were for sale.” (Michael Hiltzik, “ProPublica and Vanity Fair are pushing the COVID lab-leak theory, but their exposé is a train wreck”, https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-11-01/column-propublica-vanity-fair-covid-lab-leak-expose-train-wreck). Based on Ginsberg’s article, the Republicans’ final report is no more credible.
Ginsberg’s article also contains a number of unsupported claims and debunked allegations about EcoHealth Alliance’s work that are simply untrue.
1. It is incorrect to claim that U.S. officials never visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Staff from EcoHealth Alliance visited WIV regularly throughout the 15 year-collaboration with the organization and met with WIV staff about once every quarter during the period of EcoHealth Alliance’s federally funded work. Additionally, it has been publicly reported that officials from the U.S Embassy in Beijing visited the WIV, which also held an international science conference in Wuhan every two years through which numerous other U.S. officials and academic researchers visited the facilities.
2. It is false to claim that EcoHealth Alliance was not aware of the type of research conducted at WIV. Even a cursory examination of the many scientific research papers published by that organization in the last two decades, many in collaboration with EcoHealth Alliance, establishes that there was continuing communication with scientists at WIV throughout the period of NIH-supported research in Wuhan.
3. EcoHealth Alliance did not support “gain-of-function” research at WIV. Any assertions to the contrary are based either on misinterpretation or willful misrepresentation of the actual research conducted. 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/).
4. It is not true that EcoHealth Alliance “violated the terms of its grant from NIH by not immediately informing the U.S. government of its activities.” Grantees and research scientists are not usually required to inform federal agencies of ‘activities’ in a foreign lab other than through the normal annual reporting of research conducted under a grant. NIH did request that EcoHealth Alliance inform them of adverse responses from experiments that were reported to them earlier. EcoHealth Alliance did report these experimental results upon receiving notice of them from WIV, and no further work along these lines was conducted. There has been a blizzard of contentions about when and whether these results were reported in a timely way – and assertions that they demonstrated concerning rates of viral growth are based on misunderstandings of what the actual data showed (for a more complete explanation, see the EcoHealth Alliance response in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General Audit Report A-05-21-00025, available at https://oig.hhs.gov/reports-and-publications).
Michael Ginsberg has also uncritically published quotations from Senator Roger Marshall that are wholly inaccurate. As noted above, it is simply not true that “no one from EcoHealth Alliance had hands-on experience of the WIV,” nor that Peter Daszak had never been there. In fact, EcoHealth Alliance staff had regular meetings at WIV during the time of the NIH-funded work, and Dr. Daszak visited the institution regularly – all of which is amply documented in the project reports to NIAID program officers. The assertion that Daszak said “I never needed to look at the data” is incorrect. As with all scientists working collaboratively, EcoHealth Alliance scientists reviewed, analyzed, and published data on a regular basis from work with WIV, so that all other scientists could see the work EcoHealth Alliance had conducted. EcoHealth Alliance uploaded sequences into the NIH database Genbank, gave hundreds of presentations on this work, including to U.S. Government agencies and the public, and published dozens of peer-reviewed papers based on these data in the open scientific literature.It is unfortunate that these false claims are repeated in the Daily Caller, and that the successful scientific findings from EcoHealth Alliance’s work are not. For example, EcoHealth Alliance scientists discovered the sequences of hundreds of novel coronaviruses in China, raised awareness that some of them have ‘pandemic potential’, and called for a shutdown of the main risk for emergence: the wildlife farms and markets. EcoHealth Alliance’s work also had direct public health value, leading to the discovery of important laboratory reagents and viral cultures that have been used to test almost all therapeutics and vaccines used to fight COVID-19.
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