Christina Lin
Christina Lin

Why US outsourced bat virus research to Wuhan

US-funded $3.7 million project approved by Trump’s Covid-19 guru Dr Anthony Fauci in 2015 after US ban imposed on ‘monster-germ’ research

A recent Daily Mail article revealed that the US National Institute of Health (NIH) funded bat coronavirus research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology to the tune of $3.7 million.

Back in October 2014, the US government had placed a federal moratorium on gain-of-function (GOF) research—altering natural pathogens to make them more deadly and infectious–as a result of rising fears about a possible pandemic caused by accidental or deliberate release of these genetically engineered monster germs.

This was in part due to lab accidents at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in July 2014 that raised questions about biosafety at US high-containment labs.

At that time, the CDC had closed two labs and halted some biological shipments in the wake of several incidents in which highly pathogenic microbes were mishandled by federal laboratories: an accidental shipment of live anthrax, the discovery of forgotten, live smallpox samples, and a newly revealed incident in which a dangerous influenza strain was accidentally shipped from CDC to another lab.

A CDC internal report described how scientists failed to follow proper procedures to ensure samples were inactivated before they left the lab, and also found “multiple other problems” with operating procedures in the anthrax lab.

As such in October 2014, due to public health concerns the US government banned all federal funding on efforts to weaponize three viruses—influenza, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

In the face of a moratorium in the US, Dr. Anthony Fauci–director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) and currently the leading doctor in the US Coronavirus Task Force–outsourced in 2015 the GOF research to China’s Wuhan lab and licensed the lab to continue receiving federal funding.

The Wuhan lab is now at the center of scrutiny for possibly releasing theSARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and causing the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Understandably, China’s lab would likely struggle with safety issues given the fact US labs also share similar problems, and indeed in January 2018 the US embassy in Beijing sent cables warning about safety of the Wuhan lab and asked for help.

Additionally, the cable warned the researchers “showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus,” meaning bat coronaviruses can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases.

Now, the US is up in arms to hold China accountable for the global coronavirus pandemic, filing class action lawsuits domestically, as well as building a coalition with allies internationally.

Lawsuits have been filed within the US and the International Criminal Court that China used the virus as a bioweapon, and other suits are underway at the International Court of Justice.  GOP lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. Dan Crenshaw have also introduced legislation that would allow Americans to sue China in federal court over the death and economic damage wrought by the virus.

US spy agencies are also investigating whether the virus originated in the Wuhan lab, and seeking evidence that is needed to support the bio WMD theory promoted by GOP lawmakers.

If evidence is found that Covid-19 is a biological weapon, some pundits such as Fox News host Lou Dobbs have called for the US to declare war on China.

Nonetheless, it is unclear what the legal ramifications would be if the virus is indeed leaked from a Chinese lab, but from a research project that was outsourced and funded by the US government.

Also, if there is a government ban in 2014 on federal funding being used for GOF research, what are the federal compliance and ethical issues surrounding the fact that NIH still gave federal funding instead of private funding to the Wuhan lab to continue the experiments?

Moreover, could some strains of the coronavirus originate in US labs, given the fact the US government lifted the ban in December 2017 on GOF research without resolving lab safety issues?

For now, the Trump administration is investigating the $3.7 million taxpayer money that went to the Wuhan lab, while Rep Matt Gaetz (R-Fla) called for an immediate end to NIH funding of Chinese research. Since the federal ban on GOF research has been lifted, US labs can continue creating these monster germs domestically and would no longer need to outsource to China.

Nonetheless, there still needs to be better oversight on the dangerous experiments and regulations over biosecurity of labs. Currently, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB)—a US government interagency panel that advises the NIH’s parent, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), conducts risk assessment of GOF experiments that pose a significant threat to public health.

NSABB has given HHS a framework to assess proposed research that would create pathogens with pandemic potential, such as research on genetically altering a virus to infect more species, or recreating a pathogen that has been eradicated in the wild, such as smallpox.

However, vaccine development and epidemiological surveillance do not automatically trigger the HHS review.  In the post-mortem of the Covid-19 pandemic, this is likely a dangerous loophole that could be exploited with no oversight, and should probably be brought under HHS review in order to better protect public health in the future.

First published in Asia Times 4/22/20.

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst specializing in China-Mediterranean relations. She has extensive US government experience working on national security issues and was a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) research consultant for Jane's Information Group.