Negligence by experts in the early response to COVID-19

By Hideki Kakeya.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health authorities failed to convey correct information on the newly emerging virus. On January 14, 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) posted on its official twitter (currently X) account “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.” On February 2, 2020 the WHO posted on twitter “Asymptomatic #2019nCoV infection may be rare, and transmission from an asymptomatic person is very rare with other coronaviruses, as we have seen with MERS. Thus, transmission from asymptomatic cases is likely not a major driver of transmission.” These assertions were eventually contradicted by later findings. While these errors may not have stemmed from malintent, it remains uncertain whether future public health communications will adapt or change in response to these missteps.

On January 8 and 9, 2024, Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic of the United States (US) House had a two-day transcribed interview with Anthony Fauci, who is the former Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). According to the testimony takeaways provided by the Select Subcommittee, Fauci acknowledged that the lab-leak hypothesis is not a conspiracy theory. On January 14, the Select Subcommittee released the information that Francis Collins, the former Director of the National Institute of Health (NIH), agreed with Dr. Fauci’s concession that the COVID-19 lab-leak hypothesis is not a conspiracy theory. On January 18, the U.S. Right to Know released an early draft of US-China research grant proposal called “DEFUSE” obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), where a detailed blueprint to synthesize a SARS-CoV-2-like virus is included. Some scientists evaluate this document as a smoking gun of the lab-leak hypothesis.

There has been a huge debate on whether the original SARS-CoV-2 virus strain came from natural spill-over or accidental lab-leak. As early as in February, 2020, a statement by 27 researchers was published in the Lancet, claiming “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” However, a great amount of evidence suggests that virologists knew that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which caused COVID-19, included genomic features that natural viruses do not have in the very early days of the pandemic.

In an e-mail to Fauci on January 31, 2020, which has been made public through a FOIA request, Kristian Andersen wrote “The unusual features of the virus make up a really small part of the genome (<0.1%) so one has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered.” The features he noticed are supposed to be the receptor binding domain (RBD) best fit to human ACE2 receptors from the onset of the pandemic and the insertion of a furin cleavage site between the S1 and S2 subunits of the spike protein.

Indeed, as early as on February 2, 2020, in a FOIA-ed email from Jeremy Farrar to Fauci and Collins, they shared the views by Michael Farzan, who said “a likely explanation could be something as simple as passage SARS-live CoVs in tissue culture on human cell lines (under BSL-2) for an extended period of time, accidently creating a virus that would be primed for rapid transmission between humans via gain of furin site (from tissue culture) and adaption to human ACE2 receptor via repeated passage.” It is not certain whether this view is right or wrong. What is certain is that they knew SARS-CoV-2 was adapted to human infection and transmission as if it had been created in a laboratory, which implied a potential risk of causing a pandemic among the human population.

On the contrary to their early communications, Andersen et al., prompted by Fauci, published a paper on March, 2020 in Nature Medicine, which concludes “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” Andersen and one of his co-authors, Robert Garry, testified in the US Congressional Hearing, on July 11, 2023, where they answered they had changed their minds between the e-mail and the publication of the paper when asked about the discrepancy of their private and public writings. After the hearing, however, a trove of Slack messages between Andersen and his fellow virologists was revealed, where Andersen wrote on April 16, 2020 “We can’t fully disapprove culture… We also can’t rule out engineering… furin site still could have been inserted via gibson assembly,” which clearly shows he did not change his mind even after the publication of the Nature Medicine paper.

On January 3, 2024, 78 virologists coauthored a commentary where they denied the lab leak of SARS-CoV-2 and opposed the expansion of oversight over virology research recommended by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). They claim that stringent rules slow research progress in virology to prepare for a future pandemic. However, there have been fierce controversies over whether gain-of-function research to enhance virulence or transmissibility of viruses can contribute to prepare for pandemics. Kevin Esvelt claimed in his testimony of the Senate hearing on Aug 3, 2022, that the risk of manipulating a virus to enhance its pathogenicity outweighs the benefit.

It is hard to reach a definitive answer on whether gain-of-function research does not provide beneficial knowledge that outweighs its risk. It is also hard to find a definitive proof of the COVID origin, though a lab leak appears an increasingly probable cause of the pandemic after the finding by the U.S. Right to Know. Putting these controversies aside, one thing is quite certain. Knowledge obtained through virology research is useless unless it is utilized in face of a pandemic. The virologists who have been heavily funded for the purpose of pandemic prediction and preparedness, like the USAID-funded PREDICT project, did not immediately share their knowledge that SARS-CoV-2 had a great risk of pandemic with its anomalous adaptation to human infections, possibly acquired through serial passage. They are accountable for their cover-up. Even if the risky virology research is worth taking risks to prepare for future pandemics, it should be carried out by a new generation of open-minded researchers. The virologists who have conspired to cover-up critical information must be removed from the academic community.

Nikolai Petrovsky, who discovered that the RBD of SARS-CoV-2 has the greatest affinity to human ACE2 receptor, said in an interview with Sharri Markson that we had an opportunity in January, 2020 to eradicate this virus out of the whole human population. Also, according to Markson’s book titled “What really happened in Wuhan,” Trump’s National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, encouraged his European counterparts to apply travel ban from China as the US, Australia, and New Zealand did in the beginning of February, 2020, which was not realized in spite of his advice. “Ultimately, what happened is the Chinese banned travel internally but they continued to allow folks from Wuhan and Hubei to go to Europe and ultimately most of the infection that took place in the US came from Europe through JFK, because the Europeans allowed in massive numbers of Chinese travellers. Had the Europeans taken the same approach as the US, Australia and New Zealand on the travel ban, this thing could have been contained in a much more aggressive fashion,” O’Brien said to Markson.

Had the early covert communications among virologists been made public on the real-time basis, a wide range of people including European public health authorities could have known the abnormal transmissibility of the virus, and the pandemic could have been prevented by restricting international transportation to contain the virus in January or in early February, which could have saved millions of lives. What is needed to prevent the next pandemic is not to fund more research grants to clandestine virologists, but to open immediately all the communications among the virologists who are funded for the purpose of pandemic prediction and preparedness with taxpayers’ money in case of emergency.

One possible concern is that they can circumvent FOIA by using unofficial communication routes, as David M. Morens, a high-ranking NIH official, did, who wrote “As you know, I try to always communicate on gmail because my NIH email is FOIA’d constantly” in a September 2021 email. An inescapable strict penalty should be imposed for this kind of conduct. Whether the origin of COVID-19 is natural spill-over or lab leak, transparency of research activities is essential. We need a drastic reform to rectify the secretive culture of life science.


Author: Hideki Kakeya

Affiliations: University of Tsukuba

Competing interests: None declared

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