On June 15, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs spoke to the Madrid-based GATE Center, a think tank, about issues including sustainable development in the world after the COVID-19 pandemic.
For two years, Sachs chaired The Lancet COVID-19 Commission, which the British medical journal established to, among other things, “scrutinize the origin of SARS-CoV-2,” the virus that causes COVID-19.
Sachs‘ Madrid speech included what he called a “provocative statement” concerning the origins of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. He said (emphasis added):
“I’m pretty convinced it [the COVID-19] came out of U.S. lab biotechnology, not out of nature. Just to mention, after two years of intensive work on this. So, it’s a blunder, in my view, of biotech, not an accident of a natural spillover. We don’t know for sure, I should be absolutely clear. But there’s enough evidence that it should be looked into, and it’s not being investigated, not in the United States, not anywhere. And I think for real reasons, that they don’t want to look underneath the rug too much.”
Some media outlets interpreted Sachs’ comments as follows:
- RT (Russia Today): “Covid-19 may have originated in US biolab – Lancet chair”
- Pakistan’s Express Tribune: “Covid-19 may have originated in US bio-lab, says Jeffry Sachs”
- India’s Republic World: “COVID-19 Leaked From US Biolab, Claims Lancet’s Commission Head; Not A Natural Spillover’”
- Iran’s Tasnim News Agency: “COVID-19 May Have Originated in US Bio-Lab: American Economist”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying also chimed in, citing Sachs’ comments to reinforce Beijing’s repeated claims that the United States should be investigated as the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. China has provided no direct evidence, and U.S. labs have denied such claims.
The wording of Sachs’ statement does create ambiguity; still, RT and the others summarized his full remarks in a misleading way that downplays the disclaimer, "We don't know for sure, I want to be absolutely clear."
They shorthand the actual phrase “U.S. lab biotechnology” to instead mean a “U.S. biolab.” And Sachs did not say the coronavirus "leaked" from a U.S. lab.
In more extensive commentaries published in May, however, he and a co-author had speculated that the virus may have resulted from a U.S.-China research partnership involving the National Institutes of Health, a biolab at the University of North Carolina, and labs in Wuhan, China.
The pair argued that an independent, thorough investigation should be launched by U.S. authorities, but again there were important disclaimers.
"We do not assert that laboratory manipulation was involved in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, although it is apparent that it could have been," he and co-author Neil Harrison wrote on May 19 in a commentary for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"However, we do assert that there has been no independent and transparent scientific scrutiny to date of the full scope of the U.S.-based evidence."
Sachs did not respond a Polygraph.info request to clarify his statement in Madrid.
Sachs and Harrison, a Columbia University professor of anesthesiology and pharmacology, also co-authored a shorter opinion piece for The Boston Globe newspaper titled, “Questions surrounding the origins of COVID-19 remain unanswered,” published on May 31.
In that piece, also carefully worded, they said “[t]he origins of the COVID-19 pandemic remain unknown but may have had an assist from advanced U.S. biotechnology.”
Their concerns center on the contentious issue of "gain-of-function" research, an approach that involves altering the qualities of a virus to gauge its potential for causing widespread disease. Gain-of-function studies aim to discover threatening pathogens in advance to prevent widespread disease.
The United States funded research on bat coronaviruses with science partners in Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 was first detected in late 2019.
In their Globe commentary, Sachs and Harrison focused attention on a specific genetic feature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that “enhances the ability of the virus to enter and infect human cells,” questioning whether that feature evolved naturally or was “put into the virus by a laboratory manipulation.”
They stated that inserting this feature, called a "furin cleavage site," into viruses for experimentation had been "an aim of a U.S.-China research team, using biotechnology developed by U.S. scientists.”
Sachs and Harrison then discuss Project DEFUSE, a 2018 grant proposal to test engineered bat coronaviruses in humanized mice and measure their capacity to cause disease. A second part proposed testing ways to suppress bats in rural China from shedding potentially harmful viruses.
“Much of this work was to be carried out in a Wuhan laboratory with a low level of biosafety control,” Sachs and Harrison wrote in the Globe. Partners included the U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and a prominent research lab at the University of North Carolina.
Project DEFUSE was submitted for a $14 million grant to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) but rejected. Still, Sachs and Harrison suggest the work may have been “undertaken anyway.”
“We have no idea, but it is standard procedure to carry out preliminary work, or even a whole project, whether or not a particular grant is accepted. And in truth, the DEFUSE proposal is part of a much larger, and still hidden, research agenda overseen by the NIH,” they said.
“What work did NIH, DOD [Department of Defense], and other U.S. agencies fund that might have contributed to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2?” they wrote. "Let’s open the books and get the facts from US organizations to see what light they can shed on the origin of this tragic global disaster."
Argument over whether COVID-19 leaked from a laboratory or arose naturally from animals is ongoing, as Polygraph.info and others have reported. But given Sachs' prominence leading the Lancet committee, the commentaries further riled the debate among researchers.
In September 2021, Sachs had dissolved the Lancet COVID-19 Commission’s origin task force over potential conflicts of interest of some of its members stemming from their connection to the WIV, Science magazine reported.
Among those members was Peter Daszak, an expert on disease ecology who runs the EcoHealth Alliance and whom Sachs had chosen to head the task force. The EcoHealth Alliance gave $600,000 in U.S. government funding to the WIV to study coronaviruses in bats. Daszak's alliance had also submitted the Project DEFUSE grant proposal.
In February 2016, Daszak discussed how he and his colleagues in China carried out research involving bats that arguably fell under the gain-of-function umbrella.
Daszak has been instrumental in arguing against the lab-origin theory. In February 2020, The Lancet published a statement by a group of health scientists “strongly condemn[ing] conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”
The nonprofit group U.S. Right to Know published letters in November 2020 showing that Daszak had drafted the Lancet statement and worked to get other scientists to sign it. Three of the signatories had a change of heart, saying the lab-origin hypothesis deserved consideration.
Daszak also was a member of a controversial World Health Organization (WHO) fact-finding mission that went to Wuhan in early 2021 to investigate the pandemic’s origins.
The New York Times reported in February 2021 that some WHO team members claimed China had refused to hand over important data during that investigation. Daszak disputed the Times report, although the WHO chief also said data had been withheld from WHO investigators.
Critics have accused the outspoken Sachs of being a China apologist.
In 2018, Sachs wrote an article titled, “The U.S., not China, is the real threat to international rule of law” following the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
In April 2021, Sachs also co-authored an article titled, “The Xinjiang Genocide Allegations are Unjustified.” The piece argues that while credible human rights abuses have been reported against the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang province, they may not add up to genocide under international law.
During his Gate Center talk in Madrid, Sachs was highly critical of the United States. Sachs also blamed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on NATO expansion, a talking point echoed by China.
Some of Polygraph.info's previous fact checks about China and false or misleading claims about origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be found here.