Statement Correcting Inaccuracies in the BMJ Article “Did COVID-19 come from a lab leak in China?”
JULY 17, 2023 – Mun-Keat Looi’s article asking “Did COVID-19 come from a lab leak in China?” (https://www.bmj.com/content/382/bmj.p1556) is overall a clear and balanced review of the evidence on this important question. He did make two errors in his references to the EcoHealth Alliance (EHA); this statement serves to correct the record.
Firstly, while the article correctly quotes from the recent GAO report (https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-23-106119), it’s important to note that the conclusion quoted is clearly stated as ‘according to NIH’. In fact, EcoHealth Alliance strongly refuted that this work ‘exceeded the safety threshold outlined in the 2016 award conditions’ or that it ‘did not properly notify NIH in a timely manner’. This has been refuted directly to the GAO, to NIH, and in multiple public statements about this work. It is surprising that BMJ neither included our published responses nor reached out to EHA for comment.
Specifically, on the issue of timely reporting, the GAO explored the inaccurate contention of the then NIH Deputy Principal Director that “EcoHealth Alliance violated an award condition when it failed to immediately report experimental results to NIH showing that laboratory mice became sicker from one of the bat coronaviruses under experiment at WIV compared to a control cohort of mice and EcoHealth Alliance notified NIH of the experimental results in August 2021, at which point the agency informed EcoHealth Alliance that it had 5 days to submit any unpublished data from the WIV experiments. (Appendix II, p.34)” This statement was based on a mischaracterization of what EHA’s experiments actually showed. In fact, EcoHealth Alliance did not violate the award conditions. EHA reported the results of the mouse experiment in question to the NIH in April 2018 in our Year 4 report. Furthermore, EHA conducted no further experiments on these viruses, which, it is important to note, were based on a a bat CoV backbone (WIV-1) and dealt with a SARS-related bat CoV, not SARS-CoV (i.e., the work was with a bat CoV spike in a bat CoV backbone, neither of which had ever been shown to infect people). This last point is worth emphasizing – the fact is that the bat coronavirus research conducted by EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology could not have started the COVID-19 pandemic. As then-NIH Director Francis Collins said in a public statement on October 20, 2021: “NIH wants to set the record straight on NIH-supported research to understand naturally occurring bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, funded through a subaward from NIH grantee EcoHealth Alliance. 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.” (Italics added, https://www.nih.gov/about-nih/who-we-are/nih-director/statements/statement-misinformation-about-sars-cov-2-origins).
On the issue of whether this research exceeded a safety threshold, there was no direct evidence of significantly enhanced viral growth in this experiment. The increase in viral genome copies/gram that EHA reported was transient, found only at days 2 and 4 post infection, and returned to almost identical to the backbone virus (WIV-1) by day 6, and lower than baseline by the end of the experiment. The measures were of viral genome copies/gram, not biologically-relevant viral titers, and would include dead virus, or fragments of viral genomes resulting from inactive virus production. The results were from small numbers of mice and were therefore not statistically significant (they could have resulted from variation in individual mice before infection). Oversight of the experiments was in keeping with the conditions of the grant award. The NIH did not respond with any comments to EHA’s report, which suggests that they agreed at the time – it was only more than two years later, in hindsight, that NIH raised questions about this experiment – and started from the mistaken assumption that EHA’s report showed a real instance of significantly enhanced viral growth.
The GAO report also explores the issue of the timing of EcoHealth Alliance’s report, and reports that NIH said that “… [EcoHealth Alliance] notified the NIH of the experimental results in August 2021”. This is not correct. EcoHealth Alliance provided the GAO with documentation regarding this alleged late reporting that showed the experimental results were first reported in the Year 4 report, which was submitted into the NIH system on time in April 2018, with a copy emailed to the NIAID Program Officer at that time. The Year 5 report was uploaded into the NIH system, but then locked out from full submission and NIH did not respond to requests from EcoHealth staff to enable full submission. However, NIH program staff were made aware of the results of the experiments because these were fully laid out in the “preliminary data” sections of the renewal proposal submitted in November 2018.
On the issue of the Lancet Commission COVID-19 report: The Lancet did not launch an ‘inquiry into the origins of COVID-19’ and this was not shut down because of conflicts of interest with the EcoHealth Alliance. The Lancet task force was established to look at “The origins and spread of COVID-19, and one health solutions to future pandemics.” Dr. Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, was invited to be a commissioner and to lead this task force in full knowledge of any potential competing interests. The task force was later shut down by the unilateral action of Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, the chairman of the Lancet Commission, despite the protest of all members, who threatened to resign if EcoHealth Alliance’s involvement was ended, and following serious allegations of improper management by Dr. Sachs (see https://www.science.org/content/article/fights-over-confidentiality-pledge-and-conflicts-interest-tore-apart-covid-19-origin-probe). In the end, the task force continued its work as an independent group and published a full, peer-reviewed report of their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October 2022 (https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2202871119).
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