JEA: VT has published numerous articles pointing out that there is strong evidence that suggests that Covid 19 could have originated in US biolabs. Now we have enough evidence which confirms this theory.
IN AN ARTICLE published Thursday, economist Jeffrey Sachs called for an independent investigation of information held by U.S.-based institutions that could shed light on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sachs and his co-author, Neil Harrison, a Columbia University professor of molecular pharmacology and therapeutics, said that federal agencies and universities possess evidence that has not been adequately reviewed, including virus databases, biological samples, viral sequences, email communications, and laboratory notebooks.
Sachs and Harrison also highlighted a tantalizing scientific detail that may be an indication that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, originated in a laboratory: a sequence of eight amino acids on a critical part of the virus’s spike protein that is identical to an amino acid sequence found in cells that line human airways.
Sachs and Harrison are hardly the first to suggest that SARS-CoV-2 might have been created in a lab. Since its genetic sequence was first published in February 2020, scientists have puzzled over the furin cleavage site, an area on the virus’s spike that allows it to be cleaved by a protein on the membrane of human cells and makes the coronavirus particularly dangerous to people.
Once split, the virus releases its genetic material into the cell and reproduces. While attaching to cells and spike cleavage is part of how all coronaviruses work, SARS-CoV-2 is the only one of its class, sarbecoviruses, that can use furin for the cleavage.
As with past discussion of a possible lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, this latest theory has already been met with considerable pushback. Even some scientists who are open to the idea that a lab accident could have sparked the pandemic remain unconvinced by the particular trail of evidence laid out by Sachs and Harrison.
The journal article offers a scientific road map for how this unusual sequence of amino acids could have made its way into the furin cleavage site, or FCS, of the virus. Sachs and Harrison acknowledge that the sequence could have arisen naturally. But they also lay out another possibility: that scientists might have purposefully inserted this particular string of amino acids into a bat coronavirus in the course of their work. They focus particularly on scientists who submitted an unfunded grant proposal to a division of the Defense Department called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, laying out plans to insert a furin cleavage site into a bat coronavirus.
“We do not know whether the insertion of the FCS was the result of natural evolution — perhaps via a recombination event in an intermediate mammal or a human — or was the result of a deliberate introduction of the FCS into a SARS-like virus as part of a laboratory experiment,” Sachs and Harrison write. “We do know that the insertion of such FCS sequences into SARS-like viruses was a specific goal of work proposed by the EHA-WIV-UNC partnership within a 2018 grant proposal (“DEFUSE”) that was submitted to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects (DARPA).”
EHA is a reference to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research group based in New York City that has received more than $118 million in grants and contracts from federal agencies. WIV, or the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is a Chinese research organization that collaborated with EcoHealth Alliance in the past and was listed as a subcontractor on the DARPA grant. UNC is mentioned because Ralph Baric, a molecular biologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was to have conducted part of the work pitched to DARPA. The grant proposal touted Baric’s “two-decade track record of reverse engineering [coronavirus] and other virus spike proteins.”
The intent of the DARPA proposal was to prevent emerging pathogenic threats, but the work, if conducted, could have created a novel virus capable of infecting humans. “We will introduce appropriate human-specific cleavage sites and evaluate growth potential in [a type of mammalian cell commonly used in microbiology] and [human airway epithelial cell] cultures,” the proposal stated.
Several scientists interviewed about the DARPA proposal in September told The Intercept that scientists often begin research before seeking funding and thus that some of the experiments described in the proposal could have already been completed. But when asked about that possibility in an interview, Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, rejected it: “The DARPA proposal was not funded. Therefore, the work was not done. Simple.”
A Rational Choice
s Sachs and Harrison note, the part of a protein on the cell membrane that shares its amino acid sequence with the bat coronavirus is critical for lung function. Known as an epithelial sodium channel-alpha, or ENaC-alpha, it is found in human airway cells, as well as in human kidneys and colons. Intriguingly, like SARS-CoV-2, ENaC-alpha, which facilitates the absorption of fluid in cells, is also activated by the unusual furin cleavage site. Harrison, a physiologist affiliated with Columbia’s Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Therapeutics, studies ion channels, the larger category to which ENaC-alpha belongs.
Other scientists have already pointed out the match between the amino acid series in the furin cleavage site of SARS-CoV-2 and the ENaC-alpha found in human airways. In 2020, a team from the biomedical company Nference suggested that the overlap between the virus and the sequence found in human lungs is part of the reason that Covid-19 is so damaging to the respiratory system. Those scientists described the sequence as having evolved naturally.
Sachs and Harrison, in contrast, suggest that researchers may have inserted the string of amino acids into a bat coronavirus precisely because of its known importance to lung function. “For a research team assessing the pandemic potential of SARS-related coronaviruses, the FCS of human ENaC — an FCS known to be efficiently cleaved by host furin present in the target location (epithelial cells) of an important target organ (lung), of the target organism (human) — might be a rational, if not obvious, choice of FCS to introduce into a virus in order to alter its infectivity, in line with other work performed previously,” they write.
Such a choice, they point out, would have been in keeping with another viral research project on which EcoHealth Alliance, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and UNC’s Baric collaborated: a 2014 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases that involved increasing the transmissibility and pathogenicity of bat coronaviruses.
Growing List of Coincidences
The intriguing theory of viral engineering hinges on two observations: that the amino acid sequences match and that experts in both the ENaC-alpha furin cleavage site and the insertion of genetic sequences into bat coronaviruses happen to work at the same academic institution: the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Baric, whose work aims to prevent and create treatments for viral outbreaks, has previously inserted segments of DNA and RNA into viruses and created an infectious clone of SARS using his own patented “No See’m” method of inserting genetic materials without a trace. He has also collaborated on coronavirus research with scientists from a center for lung studies at UNC-Chapel Hill who are knowledgeable about ENaC-alpha. In one 2016 study, the scientists created a new virus using the spike of a bat coronavirus that had been isolated and characterized by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The experiment found that the new virus “replicated efficiently” in human airway cells that were cultured in a lab.
In another paper, published a year earlier, Baric, along with the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Shi Zhengli and a lung expert at UNC-Chapel Hill’s lung institute, described creating a hybrid virus using a SARS-like virus from a bat and a “mouse-adapted” coronavirus. The new virus caused mice to get sicker than those exposed to the original virus. The goal of these experiments was to prepare for the possibility that a virus might jump naturally from animals to humans, as SARS had in 2003. But even before the pandemic, the experiment drew criticism from other scientists, who were concerned because the researchers had created a virus that was able to spread in humans.
Sachs and Harrison note that the scientists who co-authored the DARPA grant proposal would have been aware of research on coronavirus furin cleavage sites, including one 2006 experiment in which a furin cleavage site was inserted into a coronavirus. “The research team would also have some familiarity with the FCS sequence and the FCS-dependent activation mechanism of human ENaC, which was extensively characterized at UNC,” they write.
Still, both the overlap in the amino acid sequence and the fact that experts in the furin cleavage site of the ENaC-alpha and insertion of genetic material into bat coronaviruses work at the same university could be coincidental, as Harrison and Sachs acknowledge. Some virologists, though, say that the coincidence strains credulity.
“Could be,” Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, wrote in an email to The Intercept when asked about the possibility that these things are both chance occurrences. “But the list of coincidences is getting verrrrrrrrrrry long.”
Ebright, a proponent of investigating the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and of investigating both natural-spillover and research-related-spillover, whom Harrison and Sachs thank “for helpful commentary on the manuscript,” spelled out some of the other…