Tue. Jul 23rd, 2024

Newly released documents and internal messages regarding a 2018 coronavirus research proposal reveal scientists’ concerns that the Chinese lab — which is now at the center of the COVID-19 lab leak theory — would be viewed by US officials as a safety risk.

Drafts and notes regarding a grant proposal called Project DEFUSE, coauthored by American researchers and scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, were published by US Right to Know Monday through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The proposal, which was ultimately rejected and denied funding by the US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was submitted by the now-controversial EcoHealth Alliance and sought to test engineering bat coronaviruses in a way that would make them more easily transmissible to humans.

The researchers proposed introducing “appropriate human-specific cleavage sites” to the spike proteins of SARS-related viruses in the lab.

The researchers had planned to conduct a portion of the research at the Wuhan lab where safety precautions are not up to US standards, according to the new documents. AFP via Getty Images
Virologist Zhengli Shi, a researcher of coronavirus in bats at the Wuhan facility, was one of the scientists who would be conducting the work if funded. Future Publishing via Getty Images

The draft proposal was made public in 2021 and raised speculation that the coronavirus pandemic may have been caused by an infected lab tech or the improper disposal of hazardous waste from the Wuhan facility.

Now, messages and notes between the proposal’s authors as well as early drafts released this week add another layer to the theory.

According to the new documents, the researchers had planned to conduct a portion of the research at the Wuhan lab where safety precautions are not up to US standards, according to US Right to Know, a nonprofit public health research group.

“Ralph, Zhengli. If we win this contract, I do not propose that all of this work will necessarily be conducted by Ralph, but I do want to stress the US side of this proposal so that DARPA are comfortable with our team,” Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance wrote to North Carolina-based researcher Ralph Baric and the Wuhan scientist at the center of the lab leak theory, Zhengli Shi.

“Once we get the funds, we can then allocate who does what exact work, and I believe that a lot of these assays can be done in Wuhan as well…”

The researchers sought to downplay the role of Chinese scientists in their proposal to please US funders but said they could allocate what work would be done where including at the Wuhan Institute of Virology if they got the funding.

He also said he wanted to “downplay” the Chinese involvement in the research in hopes of being granted funding by DARPA.

“I’m planning to use my resume and Ralph’s,” Daszak wrote. “Linfa/Zhengli, I realize your resumes are also very impressive, but I’m trying to downplay the non-US focus of this proposal so that DARPA doesn’t see this as a negative.” 

In an earlier version of the draft proposal, the researchers said the project would be “highly cost-effective” because it would only require a lab with a biosafety level of two (BSL-2), on a scale of one to four with four (BSL-4) being the strictest level of safety standards.

“The BSL-2 nature of work on SARSr-CoVs makes our system highly cost-effective relative to other bat-virus systems ( e.g. Ebola, Marburg, Hendra, Nipah), which require BSL-4 level facilities for cell ulture.

The proposal was later edited and BSL-2 was changed to BSL-3, noting that the lower level of biosafety standards would “likely freak out” US scientists.

“In the US, these recombinant SARS-CoV are studied under BSL3, not BSL2, especially important for those that are able to bind and replicate in primary human cells,” Baric commented on the original document. “In china (sic), might be growin these virus [sic] under bsl2. US reseachers [sic] will likely freak out.”

EcoHealth Alliance said the research was never completed because it never got funded. X / @EcoHealthNYC

DARPA never funded the research and the work was never done, EcoHealth Alliance said in a statement Tuesday.

“Because the work was not selected for funding, any assertions about these details are by definition based on review of incomplete information and are extremely misleading,” the statement said.

But some scientists said they saw enough to believe lab techs were responsible for the worldwide pandemic two years after the draft proposal was rejected.

“This latest leak makes the case for a lab leak almost certain,” biologist Matt Ridley tweeted. “A reckless experiment, known at the time to be reckless, probably caused the death of millions of people. Scientists and the media conspired to conceal the evidence.”

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