In the early days of the pandemic, the theory that Covid-19 may have originated in a virology lab was often dismissed as a xenophobic right-wing conspiracy theory. Over the intervening months and years, new information has cast a different light on the idea. Reporters Katherine Eban, Mara Hvistendahl, and Sharon Lerner join Ryan Grim to discuss the lab-leak theory.
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Ryan Grim: Today we’re going to talk about Covid, and the lab leak. And I want to frame this show at the top as being not just about that, but also several different things at once. And the first is the simple facts about what we know about the potential of the pandemic getting started in a lab in Wuhan.
The second is about the nature of our public discourse, and what information is allowed to be discussed freely and what isn’t. And, for a long time, any speculation about a potential lab leak was literally banned from major social media platforms. You’d have your posts taken down and you might even have your entire account deleted just for discussing it.
And then it became a right-wing thing. If you were open to thinking about it, you were kind of categorized as a right-winger, and were accused of xenophobia and sparking hate crimes against Asian Americans. Now that we know more about the potential lab leak, the social media restrictions have been lifted, but the cultural restrictions — the kind of soft censorship that’s actually way more effective than the hard censorship — that’s still around.
And so I suspect for a lot of our listeners, what they’ll hear today is going to seem out of left field. But all three of these journalists that I’m going to be joined with in a moment are quite serious and diligent. And we’ll link in the show notes to the documents to back all of this up. And where we’re merely speculating, we’ll be clear that that’s what we’re doing.
Now, and the third thing, and this is actually I think, the most important thing I want to talk about, is the risks and the benefits of this gain-of-function research. And we have to ask the question of whether it’s something that we as a global public should be allowing at all and, if so, under what restrictions. Now, the debate over gain-of-function is not new at all.
And back in 2012, Dr. Anthony Fauci wrote an article in the American Society for Microbiology, in which he argued in support of gain-of-function research. And now here’s how he argued it. He wrote:
“In an unlikely but conceivable turn of events, what if that scientist becomes infected with the virus, which leads to an outbreak and ultimately triggers a pandemic? Many ask reasonable questions: given the possibility of such a scenario — however remote — should the initial experiments have been performed and/or published in the first place, and what were the processes involved in this decision?
Scientists working in this field might say — as indeed I have said — that the benefits of such experiments and the resulting knowledge outweigh the risks. It is more likely that a pandemic would occur in nature, and the need to stay ahead of such a threat is a primary reason for performing an experiment that might appear to be risky.
Within the research community, many have expressed concern that important research progress could come to a halt just because of the fear that someone, somewhere, might attempt to replicate these experiments sloppily. This is a valid concern,” he wrote.
So yet, in 2014, the U.S. paused gain-of-function research. And so I’m excited to have on the show today, three of the journalists who’ve done as much as any others to break this story open. First is Katherine Eban. She’s a contributing writer at Vanity Fair and the author of the recent article “‘This Shouldn’t Happen’: Inside the Virus-Hunting Nonprofit at the Center of the Lab-Leak Controversy.” She’s also the author of the 2019 book “Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom.”
Katherine, welcome to Deconstructed.
Katherine Eban: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
RG: And Sharon Lerner is a health, science, and the environment reporter for The Intercept, and a winner of a ton of awards — basically all of them.
Welcome, Sharon. Thank you for joining.
Sharon Lerner: [Laughs.] Thanks for having me.
RG: Thanks for being here.
And Mara Hvistendahl is also a reporter for The Intercept, with a heavy focus on China. She was previously China bureau chief for Science Magazine and is the author of two books, “The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage” and “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Mara Hvistendahl: Good to be here.
RG: And Mara, I wanted to mention that that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, because one of the worst stings of being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, which we were back when I was at The Huffington Post, is that they announce it like seconds after they have announced who the winner is. So you don’t even get — I don’t know if this was how it was for you — but you don’t even get that week of anticipation where people are like, “Hey! I hope you win!” You’re only told publicly that you’re a finalist when you’re a loser. It’s the most brutal.
MH: Yeah, I only found out when I woke up in China and went on Twitter, as I was drinking my coffee. [Laughs.] So, I didn’t even get an email!
RG: Yeah. You find out that you’re a finalist at the exact same time that you find out that you lost. It’s so cruel. And there’s only three finalists. And once you’re a finalist, it’s a crapshoot at that point. So anyway, congratulations on getting there!
RG: And you probably didn’t get enough congratulations because nobody knew because you don’t want to tell people, “Hey, I lost today!”
MH: [Laughs.] Thanks.
RG: So anyway, Katherine, in that same year, 2014, when there was a pause, a moratorium put on gain-of-function research, the NIH gives what may end up being a consequential grant to an organization called EcoHealth Alliance. So can you tell us a little bit about what EcoHealth is?
KE: So EcoHealth Alliance is a scientific nonprofit in Manhattan, which doesn’t have a laboratory. So there’s no actual scientists there doing experiments. What they do is collaborate with other scientists and organizations around the world with a heavy focus on virus hunting, essentially trying to find pathogens in nature at high risk of a spillover to the human population from animals. And then, as we now know from grants, study those viruses, sometimes doing gain-of-function research, which is to try to increase the transmissibility or severity of infection of those pathogens to see if there are sort of avenues for spillover to the human population.
RG: And so speaking of that grant, last year, The Intercept, thanks to a lawsuit that we filed, we obtained a ream of documents related to that grant, Sharon or Mara, who wants to take this one first? What did you find in the FOIA lawsuit that emerged from that grant?
SL: Sure. I can talk about that.
So we put in a FOIA in September of 2020. And yeah, as you mentioned, there was a lawsuit we ended up getting tons of documents and I guess the first dump we got showed us that in this grant, which was called “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence,” which was awarded originally in 2014, and it was a collaboration between the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China and EcoHealth, that they, among other things, conducted an experiment in which they created a hybrid virus from a bat coronavirus.
And this is one of the viruses that Katherine is mentioning that they hunted down and found and it was referred to as WIV1. Basically, they combined other genetic material with WIV1 and injected this new chimeric virus or hybrid virus into genetically altered mice, and found that when this virus went into these genetically altered mice, it reproduced more quickly and was more pathogenic than the original, than WIV1.
So this is what many people in the field referred to as gain-of-function research. We actually asked, when we first wrote about this in September 2021, we asked 11 scientists who were either biologists or virology-adjacent experts on this, and seven of the eleven said this is fits the NIH’s own definition of gain-of-function research and nine said that it presented serious concerns about the safety and oversight of federally funded research. So that was like our first big story coming out of these documents.
We have had several stories since, one of which showed that also there was an experiment on the MERS virus, which is a very deadly virus. And what they did was they created infectious clones of MERS and swapped out the virus’ receptor binding domain, which is a part of this spike protein, which enables it to infect humans.
And for all these pieces, we’re not virologists, we don’t have PhDs in the field, but we’re always talking to people who do. And for that story, we also heard a lot of concern from people in the field that this was not a safe thing to do. So I could go on. We did a lot of reporting on this.
The next major thing I think we got from these documents was an explanation, a bit of an explanation, of how and why the NIH didn’t stop this, right? Because, as you mentioned, there is the 2014 pause on gaining function research on pandemic pathogens or potential pandemic pathogens. In 2017, they kind of resumed that research but with this set of guidelines called P3CO, which were supposed to also really closely scrutinize and protect us, right, from any dangers that might emerge from this research. This was a story that was based on some documents we obtained, and also others that were obtained by a group called the White Coat Waste Project. But basically, what we found was that the way that dodge of those protections happened was that Peter Daszak, who is the head of EcoHealth Alliance, actually crafted language that basically helped the agency bypass its own rules, right?
SL: And so what it said was for these experiments, if we have a certain amount of viral growth, right, in these new chimeric viruses or if we see that they are more pathogenic, then we’ll immediately stop, and we will inform NIH, right?
RG: Right. And did they do that?
SL: No. As far as we can tell, they did not.
And so what we have, there are two kinds of really interesting things there. One, is what you just said, they violated their own rule. But two, they crafted it and basically handed it over to NIH, which, with very little alteration, kind of allowed it to be inserted in the final agreement. And so we have spoken to a lot of biosafety folks who have expressed real concern about that — that, like, that’s not real oversight, right?
We now kind of know how it happened, because we have emails showing the crafting of this language, the accepting of this language, the insertion of this language, but overarchingly, when you take a couple of steps back, what you see is that we have the 2014 effort to guard against the dangers of gain and function, the 2017 effort — right now, we actually have a new effort that’s that’s being started to oversee some of this stuff — and the big question I’m left with is: Even if you have these incredibly well-thought out, plans for we’re going to scrutinize this, this, and this, if what appears to have happened — if you can bypass that just by saying, well, actually, it doesn’t apply, — then it doesn’t matter. So anyway, those are some of the big findings we’ve gotten from the grants.
RG: Right. But the work is being done, in this case, in this lab in China, and NIH is relying on the word of the grantee to tell them that it’s going well. And, Mara, how does what you found in this FOIA compare to what EcoHealth had said publicly about what they were doing?
MH: Well, Peter Daszak had not in his interviews with the press revealed the exact nature of these experiments. He had not talked about how risky they, in fact, were. And so that was something that the grant documents, when we published those, it came as a surprise to many people, to scientists who had in fact defended Peter Daszak when he was under fire, and they felt like he was being unfairly maligned, had taken his side. And then once these grant documents came out, there were people who said: Well, wait a minute, we did not know that he was going that far toward the line with gain-of-function research.
There were also defenders of his who noted correctly that the viruses outlined in the grant documents are not closely related enough to SARS-CoV-2 to have caused the pandemic. And said in his defense: There’s really nothing to see here, because now we have these documents, and they do not show any link to the pandemic.
But on the other hand, we still don’t have the full picture. They clearly revealed a willingness to take risks. And there have been significant holes in what NIH released to us. We’ve had to keep pushing, and Katherine has also pushed and obtained more information on this, to get the full picture of what’s happened. And we still don’t completely know. What we do know is that very risky research was carried out in Wuhan with NIH funding, that the oversight of that research has significant gaps, and that there are holes in the documents that NIH released to us.
RG: So this isn’t the only grant of interest. If it were, maybe we could stop here. But there’s also the DARPA grant application that’s crucial to this story. And Katherine, you shed some new light on that and new details in your Vanity Fair story. Why did EcoHealth apply for this DARPA grant and how does this fit in?
KE: Yeah, so around 2016-2017, EcoHealth Alliance was facing a massive financial crisis. Now this was originally an organization called Wildlife Trust that did really worthy work trying to help save manatees and pygmy elephants. But what they discovered as they went along is that that’s not really where the money was.
My article sheds new light on how they chased grant money. So they held a series of soirees, cocktail parties, at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., where they invited an array of bureaucrats from the sort of grant machinery of the federal government. And they call these cultivation events, where they were just getting to know people in the federal bureaucracy who could help steer or direct grants. And as they faced a financial crisis and a shortfall, they looked around and saw that the Defense Department could be a very lucrative source of grants, especially because the Defense Department had a lot of new money for infectious disease study and detection, and these sorts of remote forays into caves many thousands of miles away to study infectious diseases and sample bats.
So in late 2017, early 2018, EcoHealth Alliance applied for a grant from a subagency in DOD called DARPA, and they proposed to go to China’s bad caves, sample bats for coronaviruses, take those back to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, test those and then go and try to reduce viral shedding in bat caves with aerosol releases and other sorts of high-tech stuff. But what was really notable about this grant proposal was that they proposed to insert cleavage sites, similar to the mystifying furin cleavage site in the SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence, and to insert those into their coronavirus sequences to see if it would make them more infectious. And to many people, when that was exposed, that DARPA grant — and it only got exposed, I believe, last year — that really looked like a kind of smoking gun, which was that the research that was being proposed in the DARPA grant looked like a kind of directional arrow to a SARS-CoV-2-like virus. So that was quite significant. But I think what my article added to the picture was that they were really just determined to follow the money and get this grant, no matter the cost. And the internal documents that I obtained just showed the absolute chaos that existed inside of EcoHealth Alliance, where they’re like: This is a disaster. We’re just throwing this grant application at DARPA. And it’s so disorganized and nothing’s going right. And we have to change our mentality in order to be able to make money, which is what Peter Daszak told a staff meeting.
So the image that he has presented publicly is of this well-oiled machine with careful oversight, and excellent regulation and transparency. But the picture inside of that organization, which I obtained over 100,000 internal documents, just tells a very different story.
RG: And what’s so critical about this grant application is also the scientists that were behind it. And so the UNC researcher, Ralph Baric, who’s considered one of the best scientists who works in this field in the world, had done research, correct me if I’m wrong, in 2015, that he published gain-of-function research, and then he himself said: You know what? This was extraordinarily risky. It was performed in a safe location, we followed all of the safety protocols, it doesn’t appear that we leaked, but it’s scary and we ought to consider maybe not doing this stuff in the future.
Baric teamed up with them to produce this grant application. And I want to quote from your Vanity Fair article, you write the DARPA proposal was “‘basically a road map to a SARS-CoV-2-like virus,’ says virologist Simon Wain-Hobson, who is among the scientists calling for a fuller investigation of Covid-19’s origins. If the research had the blessing of a top coronavirus scientist like Baric, then it is possible the WIV would have wanted to copy what it viewed as cutting-edge science, he said. ‘That doesn’t mean they did it. But it means it’s legitimate to ask the question.’”
And so here we’re at a place where you have this sort of smoking gun, but you have EcoHealth Alliance saying, “Well, we actually never pulled the trigger. We may have had the gun, but we didn’t pull the trigger. But what you also added in your story is that you say that he wouldn’t actually know whether or not this research was done in the lab. He’s saying with certainty: We didn’t conduct any of this research ahead of time.
Before we get to that — Sharon, I want to ask you real quickly, a scientist you interviewed said that it’s rather common to do some prep work ahead of a grant application, right?
SL: Yes. We also did some reporting on the DARPA grant when it was first leaked by DRASTIC, the online investigation group. And yeah, pretty much everyone we spoke to said that when you write a proposal like this, you’ve done some investigation into what you’re seeking money for. So yes, it’s entirely possible that some of that has happened, they said.
I should say that we interviewed Peter Daszak, and asked him this very thing. And he said: Nope. We didn’t do it. It wasn’t funded. We didn’t do the work.
And he was very clear in his response. I should also say, though, that we have had some back and forth with EcoHealth Alliance, about the facts, that are not a direct line. So initially when we were reporting on the MERS work, we were told by their spokesperson that they’d never conducted that work.
SL: And then, later, we got grant materials that said very clearly that the work had been conducted. And when we reached back out that time, they didn’t respond. And then later, they seem to admit that it had happened to the NIH. So we’ve already had interactions with them in which they appeared to give a non-truthful answer.
KE: If I could just add one thing, Ryan, which is I think it’s just important to note that it seems clear from the documents that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is benefiting from their global collaboration and the cutting-edge research of Ralph Baric. And what was really clear is: You can look at it and you can say, OK, they didn’t do that research, nothing that was funded by the NIH could have turned into SARS-CoV-2 and let’s acknowledge, sure. But the point is that we don’t know what happened inside of the Wuhan Institute of Virology with those techniques that they got from tax payer funded research.
KE: We don’t know.
RG: You were told that directly from EcoHealth employees who would say it was a black box in there.
KE: Yes. Yes. And that they absolutely struggled to figure out what was going on at the WIV and that there is no way, despite whatever Daszak wants to say, that he can know fully what went on in that laboratory.
MH: And he’s told NIH again and again, that he can’t get the lab notebooks that they kept; that there are a lot of records that he says are very difficult for him to get. And yet, under the terms of the grant, he was supposed to oversee the work there and keep good records of what was going on.
And another issue that we’ve identified in our reporting is that when NIH initially released these documents to us, there were some strange anomalies on the progress reports for the last two years of the grant. One of them had been filed two years later, and the other one was missing entirely. And the reason that matters is because those are the two years immediately leading up to the start of the pandemic. So it’s very important that we have an accurate picture of what research was happening there at that time.
And after we published a story on this issue, NIH then released additional documents. So they released, without any explanation, an earlier version of one of these progress reports. And we’ve been going back and forth with Daszak and with NIH trying to figure out what is going on. I mean, Katherine has also done reporting on this issue. And it is still not completely clear. Daszak has told us that EcoHealth went in and modified the year four progress report in September 2020. He said that that’s because they found an innocuous error in the report in the course of editing another report. That report was opened in September 2020 and the date updated, but there were really no substantive changes made to it at the time. So that’s his version of events. But there are still a lot of questions surrounding that report and subsequent reports. And so it’s clear that we don’t have the full picture yet.
RG: Right. And so, Mara, the lab leak theory in the very beginning in the U.S. was associated with, like I said earlier, with the right-wing, with Trump. But actually, you were telling me that it originated on Chinese social media. Tell us a little bit about that.
MH: Yeah. So in February 2020, I had just come out with a book detailing how China and Chinese scientists in particular figured into national security narratives in the United States. So a lot of it was about racism and the Trump administration, and this was an issue that I was very sensitive toward. And if you go back to that period, tensions with China were rising, the Trump administration had very openly staked out an interest in escalating tensions with China. And, at the same time, it was an administration that appeared very anti-science at moments.
When people in the Trump administration came out and suggested that the pandemic could have originated in a lab, there was immediately skepticism among many on the left, and among many reporters — people just outright dismissed it. I know, because I did that myself at the time, and I’m somebody who’s visited many Chinese labs. And it became clear to me after spending a month or two looking into this, that there were very legitimate reasons to be concerned; that there was actually a kernel of truth amid all of Trump’s — this was a period where he was using phrases like “Kung Flu,” and just crazy stuff coming out of his mouth. There was actually reason to take seriously the possibility of a lab leak and if you go back to the first mention of who originally identified the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and talked about the possibility that this could have happened, it was Chinese citizens on social media.
RG: And so that brings us to February of 2020. And as the coronavirus is spreading around the country, scientists are starting to ask where it’s coming from, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and those close to him. And so there’s a critical series of days from I believe, Feb. 1 to Feb. 4, a lot of emails going back and forth, a conference call.
Sharon, you’ve done a lot of reporting on this. Can you hash out what was the original understanding or the original assumption from a number of these scientists that that spoke with Fauci? And how did we get to a place where it went from an open question to no question at all?
SL: So I should say: You’ve done a lot of reporting on this.
SL: And actually, more than I have.
RG: Appreciate that.
SL: Well, it’s true.
RG: And so right, there’s this really important phone call that took place, I believe, on Feb. 1? And it’s 11 scientists that got together to talk about the possibility that Covid-19, may have originated from a lab leak and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and that it might have been due to the manipulation of one of the viruses that they had there.
SL: And so there are a number of top scientists who are on this call — Robert Garry, Edward Holmes, Kristian Andersen, Jeremy Farrar — and basically they are talking about about this possibility and recognizing that there are real reasons to be concerned and that there are various ways that lab work that they all knew was underway at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where of course is where the pandemic began — might have led to the pandemic. And they run through a number of possibilities on the call.
And you can tell from the emails that follow this call, one of the scientists, Mike Farazan, who’s from the Scripps Research Institute sent an email to Tony Fauci, Francis Collins, then-head of NIH, and Lawrence Tabak, also of NIH, kind of summarizing the concerns of the scientists and it’s really compelling and you can tell that they’re all quite concerned.
So according to a written summary of some of what the scientists were thinking, this is a really interesting thing that is attributed to Bob Garry who’s a virologist at the Tulane School of Medicine. And this is a quote from that summary:
“I lined n-CoV” — so, the new coronavirus — “with the 96 percent bat Coronavirus, sequenced at the WIV. Except for the RBD” — and that means receptor-binding domain — “the S proteins are essentially identical at the amino-acid level, while all but the perfect insertion of 12 nucleotides, that adds the furin site, as to is over its whole length, essentially identical. I really can’t think of a plausible natural scenario where you get from the bat virus or one very similar to it to [SARS-CoV-2] where you insert exactly 4 amino acids 12 nucleotide[s] that all have to be added at the exact same time to gain this function…. I just can’t figure out how this gets accomplished in nature.”
RG: And there are a number of other scientists saying very similar things on that call, according to the summary, right? You have this conference call where you have all of these different scientists saying — some of them are putting percentages, 70/30 lab, 60/40 lab, and then just a couple days later, you have kind of an organized paper with some of these same scientists saying that actually, the lab leak is just a giant conspiracy.
And before you answer that, I want to say: So Maia Hibbett, a colleague of mine, reached out to Dr. Bob Garry fairly recently for a story that I wrote with her and he wrote back to her: “Neither Drs. Fauci or Collins edited our Proximal Origins paper in any way.” This is the paper I want to ask you about in any way. “The major feedback we got from the Feb 1 teleconference was: 1. Don’t try to write a paper at all — it’s unnecessary or 2. If you do write it don’t mention a lab origin as that will just add fuel to the conspiracists.”
So that’s Garry telling Maia Hibbett, our Intercept reporter, what Fauci and Collins told them ahead of this proximal origins paper. So this paper becomes critical to the entire conversation because this paper then becomes the thing that people point to to say, we don’t need to talk about a lab-leak origin.
So Katherine, what is this proximal origins paper?
KE: Yeah, so just to be clear, this is not a paper that was peer-reviewed. It was a letter.
KE: It had five authors on it. Four of them were in this February confab.
RG: — days earlier.
KE: Right, with Fauci and Farrar. And a number of them were basically saying: We cannot take the possibility of a lab leak off the table. That’s what they were saying. But what they wrote in the proximal origins letter is that there is sort of no scenario by which we believe this could have had a lab origin.
Once that gets into pre publication, Fauci is at the White House and asked by a reporter at one of the White House Covid briefings, could this have come from a lab?
Reporter: Dr. Fauci, can you address these suggestions or concerns that this virus was somehow man-made, possibly came out of a laboratory in China?
KE: He points to the proximal origins letter and says:
Dr. Anthony Fauci: There was a study recently that we can make available to you where a group of highly qualified evolutionary biologist looked at the sequences there and the sequences in bats as they evolve, and the mutations that it took to get to the point where it is now is totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human.
KE: So I mean that gets disseminated from the White House podium with no reference to this February confab. Meanwhile, and this is something that my story exposed for the first time, Bob Redfield, who was the Director of the CDC, had these private communications with Fauci, Jeremy Farrar of Wellcome Trust, and Dr. Tedros of the WHO, and basically said: We have to take a lab leak possibility with utmost seriousness, we need to look into this. But he was completely excluded from this private huddle. And only found out later that it took place.
So he believes will, why was he excluded? Because the exercise was to come up with a single narrative that they could then communicate. And that strategy appears to have been quite effective if Redfield is right. They did come up with a single narrative, and really took the possibility of a lab origin off the table — publicly — for many, many months.
RG: So Peter Daszak also started to participate in this effort to organize scientists to push the media away from looking at the lab leak. Any one of the three of you want to take Peter Daszak’s role in this.
KE: [Laughs.] So meanwhile, while that huddle is going on, Daszak is organizing a letter to be published in The Lancet, which basically says: We scientists support our colleagues in China — and that is certainly commendable. But then it goes on to say: Anybody who is talking about the possibility of a lab origin is basically peddling conspiracy theories.
What wasn’t clear at the time that that came out in late February, is that there was a whole cache of emails, in which he and Ralph Baric and others were saying: We need to conceal our role in organizing this letter, because it’ll have much more power and authority if our role is concealed. And Jeremy Farrar was a co-signatory of that letter, and a number of people who were on that letter — Christian Drosten, who was one of them — basically came out later and said: Hey, if I had known all this research that was going on at the WIV, I wouldn’t have signed that letter, because I consider the research that was being done to be quite risky and I didn’t really understand Daszak’s role in all of this.
So what we can now look back on and see clearly is that The Lancet letter, and the proximal origins letter, had a really chilling effect on the sort of candid discussion that was needed, about where this virus originated.
RG: So Mara, can you talk about what unfolded from there.
MH: So I first wrote an article that got into the possibility of a lab leak in, I believe, May 2020. And, at that point, things were so toxic, that it really felt like we were out there alone on the topic, with a few other publications, like The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and so forth, that were covering it.
But in the months that followed, things began to shift a bit. You still had a lot of the mainstream media kind of rallying around Daszak’s narrative and his version of events, and accepting that full scale. But there were, at the same time, scientists and biosafety advocates who felt like lab safety was not on the table in the way that it should be.
And so in the spring of 2021, you’ve got this series of open letters by some very prominent scientists — one of them was actually published in Science, so in the preeminent journal in the field — and those letters said that, you know, essentially the possibility of a lab that needed to be taken very seriously, that it had been preemptively dismissed. The WHO had come out with a report on the origins of the coronavirus that, you know, relegated it to extremely unlikely and we now know that the WHO’s investigation was extremely limited, that they were not given full access to labs and to other areas that they wanted to see. And so they’re come to be a bit of — not backlash, but pushback from the scientific community.
RG: And so Katherine, in your Vanity Fair article, you lead with this fascinating conference call between Francis Collins, Anthony Fauci, and this scientist, Dr. Jesse Bloom, who both Sharon and Mara, you have all all interviewed before. He’s coming out with a paper and, as a courtesy, sends it to Fauci and Collins, they invite him onto a call and they tell him he can bring a second which — which you say kind of portends like an ancient duel. So he brings his second along, and he’s right, it does turn into a duel. So how does this conference call go down?
KE: Yeah. So Jesse Bloom was tracking some of the early SARS-CoV-2 sequences from China, and he began sort of doing detective work and realizing that some of the sequences that were published in Chinese journals seem to have disappeared from the NIH database of sequences, which struck him as odd. And he was basically able to figure out that the NIH deleted the sequences at the request of these Wuhan researchers.
So he wrote a pretty unusual paper about that. And he sends the preprint, before it appears publicly, to Fauci and Collins; they immediately turn on a dime and organize this conference call, this Zoom call. Kristian Andersen and Robert Garry come on. Collins invites them and asks Bloom: Who should we invite? And so he, Rasmus Nielsen, and Sergei Pond, two scientists get on the call. And almost immediately, it just devolves into this furious set of accusations with Anderson accusing Bloom of bringing scrutiny to this that will lead to more harassment of scientists. And then Anderson proposes something that just stuns Bloom.
He says: Look, the preprint is not public yet. So I can go in there and basically with no fingerprints, I can either revise it, or delete it. And Bloom is aghast, and he says: I don’t think that that is appropriate, given the circumstances. And, Fauci and Collins, reading the room are like: Yeah, that’s maybe not a great idea.
RG: Doesn’t one of them say: For the record, I never asked you to do this?
KE: Yeah, “for the record.” But one question here has become what information is in those early sequences? And those early sequences now are really critical. Because partly they indicate, or they raise the issue of the timing of the origin of the start of this pandemic, which is critical.
So there were these preprints that came out, which basically claimed that there was this positive proof of a market origin, that this came from some spillover event from an infected animal at this wholesale seafood market.
RG: And can I just pause you there for one second, with a comment? If their job is to find viruses and stop them before they become a pandemic. And let’s say it did not come out of the lab, this wasn’t their mistake. That means that it came from a few miles away, and they couldn’t stop it.
RG: And a virus could come anywhere in the world. So their entire theory on what the benefit of their research is, is that they’re going to identify these pathogens before they become pandemics. It was walking distance from their lab.
RG: And if it’s true that it came from that wet market, they utterly failed to stop it.
RG: So anyway, I just wanted to put that out there.
KE: That’s absolutely true. I mean they’ve gone on to say that they need billions more for this critical prevention. But I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask: Well, what have these billions gotten us when they couldn’t predict or prevent a pandemic, which began, as you say, within walking distance of their laboratory?
SL: Before you go on, Katherine, let me just add, point out here that it’s not only the money that we may give them in the future, it’s the money we are still giving. There is an active ongoing grant, which we have published, we obtained with our grant documents, which describes essentially the same research that was in the first grant right? Different partners, WIV is not a partner now, but UNC is a partner and it is ongoing. The work is ongoing, and currently being funded. And I have written about this in the past, but I feel like it’s not a detail.
RG: [Laughs.] Right, it’s kind of a big deal.
SL: It’s a big thing. This is still happening. OK, sorry.
KE: So, as I was saying, this question of this early sequences and when the pandemic actually began is critical, because the claim to a market origin really dissolves if, in fact, the pandemic began earlier — quite a bit, perhaps, earlier — than what is presumed in those preprints alleging a market origin. So, if, in fact, we’re looking at a September 2019, beginning of this, or possibly even earlier, it really changes the narrative, because the question now that we’re faced with from this sort of battle of preprints is was the eruption of SARS-CoV-2 at the wholesale market, did it mark the origin of this virus? Or was it an amplifying event? And that is where this sort of super spread that was visible began?
SL: And then sort of brings us back also to the public discussion, the media coverage issue, and maybe someone wants to talk about how those preprints were covered by The New York Times.
I noticed in your article, Katherine, that you said that they got front-page treatment. Did that mean that they were on the front page? I was actually trying to figure that out.
KE: It was indeed on the front page, I believe that it was partly because they claimed to have dispositive evidence. But in fact, if you really drill down, even their next few sentences after that indicates it’s not dispositive evidence. But once the Times put it on the front page, it was picked up absolutely everywhere. And as some scientists have said to me, that kind of language is not what you usually put in a scientific paper. So it sort of points to the question of how much marketing there was in this scientific paper. The ratio of marketing to science.
And also decisions by the New York Times, of course, about placement, and production, and I got an alert on my phone, I think.
RG: Yes, I got the same.
SL: Right? And it was like, suddenly — and I had people texting me saying: Well, that story is dead. And I don’t know if you experienced a similar thing.
KE: Oh, sure. But then the problem is you begin sort of digging into those preprints. And in order for what they’re saying to be true, they have to have been working with a complete dataset. We have to be able to believe that the sequences that they examined from the market are, in fact, complete, and that they represent the earliest sequences. So the problem with all of this is that: Yeah, that’s what’s visible. But at the same time, even the day before they rushed those preprints into the public, the Chinese, Chinese CDC came out with a study which basically said: We deem the market to be an amplifying event, and that of all of the tests that we did, we picked up the virus and environmental samples, but not in any of the animals that we swapped.
RG: And yeah, Mara can you talk about the Chinese government, the sequences. So in order to write this article, which to be clear, the headline is: “New Research Points to Wuhan Market as Pandemic Origin,” Feb. 27, 2022.
Like you said, they alerted it, they put it on the front page, they gave it their gigantic graphic treatment with the zooming in, and they’re signaling to readers that they have spent enormous amounts of resources on this, on what is just a preprint. Just a paper from scientists that has not been peer-reviewed, hasn’t been published yet. And like Katherine says, it relies on only the sequences that are available.
So yeah, Mara, what do we know about the ones that are not available?
MH: Well, I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot in the past month or, now, six weeks, with the lockdown in Shanghai. I lived there for eight years. I have many friends who have been in their apartments for days, or over a month in some cases. And one of the things that’s become abundantly clear, that was clear before but it’s been underscored in the events of the past month, is that the data put out by the Chinese government is just horribly incomplete.
You have situations where people have said: My relatives died, or I personally know someone who died. And the deaths are not showing up in the death toll put out by the city. I mean, we knew that early in the pandemic, we knew that there were issues with the data. But it’s abundantly clear now.
And when you look at the early case data from Wuhan, for a period the Wuhan CDC was only looking at cases that had a link to the Huanan Seafood Market. So that of course biases them toward cases that have a market connection.
I feel like we’re in this cycle, which has now gone on for over two years, where you have competing media narratives and competing scientific narratives. And we kind of go back and forth from one to the other.
I mean, there have been a lot of very, honestly, not just shoddy scientific papers published, but also very speculative articles on both sides. And I just find it very unfortunate. We don’t have an interest in pushing anything beyond the facts. And ultimately it’s in everyone’s interest to get closer to figuring out the origin of the pandemic so that we can prevent the next one.
RG: And that’s what’s been so bizarre and concerning to me about this entire debate, because the question took on this partisan valence that it didn’t have to, and that doesn’t even make sense. Like, there’s nothing inherent in being a Republican that suggests that you should believe that it came from a lab; there’s nothing inherent about being a Democrat that says you want it to have come out of this seafood market. There’s just no connection to that. If this was a question about taxes or support for child care, OK, then there’s a partisan valence that makes sense, but nothing here makes sense about this. And the question is so crucial, because as Sharon, you talked about, this research is still being studied.
RG: So after having looked at this for several years, research is still being done, what is your sense of the cost and benefit of this type of gain-of-function research? And where is the scientific community at this point?
SL: Well, I mean, I think most scientists that have spoken really strive to make distinctions in the term. The term has gotten really problematic for a lot of people. I mean, if we’re just talking about that you alter [a virus] and give it different capabilities, potentially that could be OK in a number of circumstances.
I think what we’re talking about really specifically here is with pathogens that have the potential to spark a pandemic. In 2014, that was a sort of academic notion. Right now, it’s not, right? We’re approaching a million deaths in the United States. And as you’ve said, and as I’ve said, this research is ongoing, and which is why it’s been so, yes, heartbreaking to see it kind of break down in this really weird, partisan way. And I also find it pretty mysterious. And one of the things that seems to be driving it on the right, is this through line of very strong negative feelings about Tony Fauci who, I mean, has served in all these different administrations — Republican, Democrat — and yet on the right there, you seem to be really motivated by this interest in ousting him. And I find that to be really interesting and puzzling.
And on the Democratic side, you see this continued resistance to engaging in any real way with this question and doing a thorough investigation that would unearth some of the facts that we know could be gotten, right? So obtained. We have all this information in the U.S., both within the government and in academic institutions, that has not been mined yet, right? More than two years after this.
We know we’ve talked a lot about UNC and Ralph Baric’s lab. They did not get the DARPA funding; they have gotten a lot of funding — I’m talking about EcoHealth here — DTRA, another branch of DOD, from USAID, and again from NIH. There’s a lot of unmined evidence that I think, left and right, we should be thinking about how to solve this problem, both because we’ve seen it devastate our country in the entire world. And because, yes, we’re still doing this research.
KE: Let me also add, Ryan, that you talked about this sort of partisan valence, and I feel let beneath this is this question about the support and defense of science. And that because Republicans have been associated with sort of anti-science positions — the Democrats feel that they have to, and many scientists feel that they have to, defend science. And while I totally understand that impulse, as Dr. Redfield put it to me, he’s a virologist, that’s a fundamentally anti-scientific position, which is to kind of close your mind to other possibilities, right? I mean, the ultimate scientific inquiry, just like the ultimate journalistic inquiry, is to go wherever the facts lead, which I think everybody on this podcast is inclined to do.
SL: Another part of this, I think, is that we’re talking about all these players who are kind of fending off inquiry into this question. And almost all of these scientists rely on NIH for their livelihoods, right? And it becomes very difficult to point the finger at your boss, essentially, right?
SL: And even if you’re not saying “you did it,” you’re saying, “Let’s take a good look at the potential culpability,” it’s a very difficult question to ask. And we don’t think about that, people don’t generally think about that when they think about scientists. That they’re an important funding source, and the NIH, not just in the United States, but around the world, is really powerful as a funder.
RG: Right. And Collins and Fauci were being extremely clear, in early February, about what they felt about the value of exploring the lab leak. That even the exploration would just fan the flames of conspiracy theorists.
And Mara, with your knowledge of China and Chinese labs as well, as you’ve looked at this over the last couple of years, has your thinking on this research evolved?
MH: Well, so I’d covered the controversy over gain-of-function research before the pandemic. I knew that there were politics surrounding this issue that had nothing to do with partisan politics, had nothing to do with U.S.-China relations, and there were these pre-existing tensions. I actually visited a BSL-4 lab in China at one point to write about controversial flu research.
RG: It means like, the most secure.
MH: Yeah, so this was not the Wuhan Institute. It was a different lab in Hubei.
RG: Which is also wild to think about. That Wuhan, I think, Katherine, you described it as a kind of the JV lab, like a safety school of Chinese labs. So not only are we funding this extremely dangerous research, but it’s basically in a strip mall.
MH: And so this is an issue that’s very emotional for many people, very emotional for scientists, as we’ve discussed. And so you’ve had people asking: Well, why does it even matter that we know where the pandemic came from?
And one obvious answer is that we need to know where it came from, so that we can prevent the next pandemic. Already China and other countries are building more biolabs in the wake of the pandemic. So the reaction to the pandemic has been: Let’s build more labs; let’s do more work with viruses, so that we can catch dangerous viruses before they emerge. And, obviously, if that research caused the pandemic, then we need to be very careful about the safety in those labs — even if there’s just a chance that that research caused the pandemic. And we don’t know, but we know it could have caused it. We need to be careful about the biosafety practices.
And it’s not just China and the U.S. has a has a proliferation of biolabs around the country, some of them in areas that are vulnerable to climate change and to natural disasters, to safety issues —
RG: Or wars, apparently. We have some in Ukraine. [Laughs.]
MH: Right, yeah, just safety issues that have nothing to do with just scientists making mistakes. And so these are issues that we need to continue to think about. Because the science is moving forward. And this is about our future.
KE: Yeah. Well, I was gonna talk about the NSABB. But keep going with —
RG: No, go ahead.
KE: Well, when you look at the discussion that’s now happening with this group, the NSA BB, which is a group of scientists appointed by NIH, to renew this, look at the safety of potential pandemic pathogen research. And even with this real possibility, now that this current pandemic could have been set off by lab work, you still see this really vigorous defense of the whole line of research and this argument that we’re gonna lose our place in the sort of international kind of science competition to get to the front, to the most groundbreaking research, and that we’re gonna hobble our ability to fight pandemics and prevent pandemics.
So it’s the same argument that has justified this kind of dangerous work to begin with. And it doesn’t seem that, judging from the ongoing discussions of the NSABB, that even this real possibility has moved the dial much in terms of the public discussion. Still, you have a real kind of strong defense of all of this research. And it hasn’t been decided yet, there are more meetings planned. But I, having listened to some of the first batch of meetings, I’m not confident that they’re going to do anything more than happened in 2014 and 2017 to protect us.
RG: And the way I think about it is that in order for us to remain future pandemic-free, we would have to be lucky in every single lab, every single day forever. The virus only has to get lucky once. And I have not been feeling very lucky lately, but maybe we’ll all get nuked first [laughs] and save us all from that.
Katherine, Sharon, Mara, thank you so much for joining me. This has been terrific.
MH: Thank you, Ryan.
KE: Thanks for having me. This was great.
RG: That was Katherine Edan, Mara Hvistendahl, and Sharon Lerner. And that’s almost the end of our show.
But first, a few quick but important notes. Now first, a double thank you to Sharon. So speaking of Covid and its origins, I have Covid right now, and you may have noticed that for last week’s episode, which was an interview with Sharon and human rights attorney Steven Donziger, Sharon did the introduction for the show. And that’s because after we recorded the interview, I completely crashed. And she graciously stepped in to finish it.
I’m feeling much better. And now she’s back a second week in a row. So thank you again to Sharon.
And a couple of notes on EcoHealth Alliance and their response to this reporting. For Daszak’s full perspective on all this, you should check out their in-depth interview with him, which we’ll link to in the show notes.
Specifically, though, as it relates to the allegation that EcoHealth did not comply with its NIH reporting requirements, EcoHealth disputes this, and has written in a letter to the NIH which The Wall Street Journal has written about, that it “did in fact comply with all reporting requirements.”
On the discrepancy between their claim that they had not conducted research on the deadly MERS virus and the FOIA documents showing that they had conducted that research, Daszak has said that the spokesperson who made that claim was misinformed.
On behalf of Jeremy Farrar, the director of the U.K.’s Wellcome Trust, a spokesperson told Vanity Fair: “‘Dr. Farrar is in regular conversation with and regularly convenes many other expert scientists.’” He added about the February call and emails, “‘Dr. Farrar’s view is that there was at no stage any political influence or interference during these conversations, or in the research carried out.’”
Virologist Robert Garry, who was on the call Farrar organized with a group of 11 scientists, told Vanity Fair, “‘frankly tiresome to explain for the umpteenth time that that was one email cherry-picked among dozens, even hundreds, in part of an ongoing scientific discussion.’”
As I mentioned during the show, Dr. Garry also told us in an email, “Neither Drs. Fauci or Collins edited our Proximal Origins paper in any way. The major feedback we got from the Feb 1 teleconference was: 1. Don’t try to write a paper at all — it’s unnecessary or 2. If you do write it don’t mention a lab origin as that will just add fuel to the conspiracists.”
Now, evolutionary biologist Kristian Andersen and Garry, who are on the call with Jesse Bloom — that was the call with Jesse Bloom, Collins, and Fauci that Katherine Edan wrote about, both deny anyone on the call suggested deleting or amending the paper.
Now for her story, Katherine even spoke to Sergei Pond, who was also in the meeting, and Sergei confirmed evolutionary biologist Jesse Bloom’s account.
There’s also the call with Jesse Bloom, Collins and Fauci. So evolutionary biologists Kristian Andersen and Garry who are on that call, both denied anyone on the call suggested deleting or amending the paper. Now, for her story, Catherine spoke to Sergei Pond, who was also in the meeting and Sergei confirmed what Bloom had said.
RG: And that is our show.
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