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Update: China Misleads on Nature of Wuhan Coronavirus Research

Update: China Misleads on Nature of Wuhan Coronavirus Research
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Video production: Nik Yarst

Zeng Yixin

Zeng Yixin

Deputy director of China's National Health Commission

“[Th]e [Wuhan Institute of Virology] has no man-made viruses and has never conducted gain-of-function researches.”


Update: After publication of this fact check, the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases responded to's questions about gain-of-function research. The statement said that while the institute indirectly funded virus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, none of that research involved making viruses more dangerous, and multiple expert reviews determined it did not meet the definition of gain-of-function research. See the full statement below.


On July 22, a senior Chinese health official said he was “shocked" by a recent World Health Organization suggestion that another round of investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic was needed in China.

Beijing both rejected the suggestion that another probe be conducted in Wuhan, where the pandemic erupted in December 2019, and the suggestion the virus might have escaped from a laboratory at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

That reaction was promoted by WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus' call the previous week for an audit of the institute and other research organizations and relevant sites in Wuhan.

Tedros, who said earlier investigative efforts had been hampered by a lack of information from China, called on China to help get to the bottom of the origins quest “by sharing all relevant data in a spirit of transparency.”

Tedros said there had been a “premature push” to dismiss the theory that a lab leak could have seeded the pandemic.

A 14-member WHO team visited China for 27 days in January and February. Their report initially concluded it was “extremely unlikely” the pandemic originated in a laboratory but added that “laboratory accidents do happen.” That report concluded it was far more likely the virus emerged naturally.

Members of the WHO team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 arrive at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on February 3, 2021.
Members of the WHO team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 arrive at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on February 3, 2021.

Zeng Yixin, deputy director of China’s National Health Commission, said the calls for an additional investigation in China showed a “lack of respect for common sense and the arrogance to science in the proposal,” according to China’s state-run Global Times.

The Times reported that Zeng told journalists on July 22 “the WIV has no man-made viruses and has never conducted gain-of-function researches.”

The Global Times quoted Zeng as saying the WHO should “promote the origins study in more countries and places around the world.”

At the same time, The Global Times posted a letter, on Chinese social media apps WeChat and Weibo, “entrusted” to them by “a group of Chinese netizens … urging the WHO to investigate Fort Detrick,” a U.S. Army lab in Maryland.

Zeng Yixin, Vice Minister of the Chinese National Health Commission, speaks at a press conference at the Information Office of the State Council in Beijing on Thursday, July 22, 2021. Mark Schiefelbein/AP
Zeng Yixin, Vice Minister of the Chinese National Health Commission, speaks at a press conference at the Information Office of the State Council in Beijing on Thursday, July 22, 2021. Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Zeng’s statement about so-called gain-of-function research is misleading, and China’s attempts to show that Fort Detrick could be behind the virus are unsubstantiated and have been widely reported as a ploy to divert scrutiny.

A debate is ongoing over gain-of-function research, which involves tinkering with viruses to alter qualities to predict their potential for causing widespread disease. In theory, gain-of-function studies can stop deadly viruses before they propagate.

There is no debate about whether viruses were manipulated at the Wuhan lab. Rather, the issue is what type of manipulation is considered gain of function, based on differing bureaucratic and scientific guidelines.

Shi Zhengli, an expert on bat coronaviruses and director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the WIV, denied ever conducting research on gain for function when interviewed by The New York Times in June, and by China Science News (CSN) almost a year ago.

But a 2015 paper, titled “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence,” reported on a human-made virus that may infect people. The paper cited Shi's contribution to its preparation, and the WIV served as the key lab.

The paper described how genetics were employed in the process:

"Using the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system, we generated and characterized a chimeric [human-made] virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone.”

In June 2016, Shi and Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO fact-finding mission to Wuhan, and others released a study on how they had performed research on different types of “WIV1”—a SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome)-like coronavirus “with high genomic similarity to human SARS-CoV.”

SARS-CoV is similar to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

As previously noted, Daszak has been instrumental in arguing against the lab-leak theory. He is president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based organization “that conducts research and outreach programs on global health, conservation and international development.”

The alliance gave $600,000 in U.S. government funding to the WIV to study coronaviruses in bats.

In February 2016, several months before Shi and Daszak released their study, Daszak discussed how his colleagues in China had arguably carried out gain-of-function research involving bat viruses.

“We found other coronaviruses in bats, a whole host of them, some of them looked very similar to SARS. So we sequenced the spike protein: the protein that attaches to cells. Then we … Well I didn’t do this work, but my colleagues in China did the work. You create pseudo particles, you insert the spike proteins from those viruses, see if they bind to human cells. At each step of this you move closer and closer to this virus could really become pathogenic in people,” Daszak said.

A “spike protein” is a specific feature of a coronavirus, through which the virus penetrates host cells and causes disease.

A 2017 study by WIV scientists, including Shi, titled “Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus,” noted the use of “chimeric" viruses in studying how two SARS-CoV viruses (WIV1 and WIV16) were able to infect and replicate in human cells.

That and other research conducted by the WIV was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The work was encouraged by EcoHealth Alliance.

Rowan Jacobsen wrote in the MIT Technology Review last month that the EcoHealth Alliance received a five-year, $3.75 million grant in 2014 “to study the risk that more bat-borne coronaviruses would emerge in China,” with some of that work “subcontracted to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

Later in 2014, the U.S. government placed a moratorium on gain-of-function research due to safety concerns, including fears the research itself could result in an “accidental pandemic” through a lab leak.

In January 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing sent diplomats to the WIV. What they learned about the lab’s operations prompted them to cable Washington, D.C., expressing alarm.

U.S. embassy officials had become aware in late 2017 that WIV researchers had discovered three new viruses with spike proteins that posed a public health risk. Their discovery, combined with the fact that the WIV's National Bio-safety Laboratory was the first such facility in China and was only completed in 2014, prompted their visit to the lab.

One cable, dated January 19, 2018, warned that the WIV “has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians, and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” The Washington Post reported.

Politics now surrounds the debate over whether U.S.-funded studies at WIV constitute gain-of-function research and whether a dangerous experiment could have leaked.

NIAID Director Anthony Fauci has on multiple occasions denied that the NIH directly funded gain-of-function research at the WIV.

In a contentious exchange between Fauci and Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul during a July 20 hearing, Paul brought up the 2017 WIV study.

Paul, who is a physician, noted that Shi, who acknowledged the NIH funding for that study, “took two bat coronavirus (spike) genes and combined them with a SARS-related backbone to create new viruses that are not found in nature.” He added that the “lab-created viruses were then shown to replicate in humans.”

Paul further said that “viruses that only infect animals in nature were manipulated in the Wuhan lab to gain the function of infecting humans.”

Fauci replied that “qualified staff up and down the chain” did not consider that research to be gain of function, telling Paul: “You do not know what you’re talking about.”

But Fauci has been criticized for splitting hairs. Writing in The Washington Post, columnist Josh Rogin noted that Fauci’s definition of gain of function likely hews to federal guidelines from 2017 and not the broad scientific understanding of the term.

Rogin cited Richard Ebright, a microbiologist and biosafety expert at Rutgers University, who said the Shi study in question “matches, indeed epitomizes the definition of gain of function research.” reached out to the NIH for clarification on what constitutes gain of function research. The NIH said in a statement that none of the studies at the WIV were designed to manipulate viruses to increase their transmissibility or ability to cause disease (complete statement below). and other fact-checkers have debunked Chinese claims about the U.S. Army biodefense research center at Fort Detrick as unsubstantiated. But the Chinese haven’t given up.

The Global Times claims that, as of July 22, five million Chinese citizens had signed a petition calling for an investigation into whether Fort Detrick was the source of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Statement received on July 27, 2021, from the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases:

"The experiments conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology as described in the 2017 Plos Pathogens paper were supported indirectly by NIAID under a sub-award from EcoHealth Alliance.

"NIAID reviewed the grant under the U.S. Government Gain-of-Function Deliberative Process and Research Funding Pause of Selected Gain-of-Function Research Involving Influenza, MERS and SARS Viruses. A detailed staff review determined the research proposed under the grant did not meet the criteria for gain-of-function research described in this policy.

"Under the grant, EcoHealth Alliance proposed research to create chimeric viruses by placing a small portion of newly identified, evolutionarily distant, bat coronaviruses into another well characterized bat coronavirus that has never been demonstrated to infect humans called WIV1. The purpose of this work was to examine whether the newly discovered viruses were able to use the human ACE2 receptor like WIV1 and other SARS-related coronaviruses already do. In the context of these experiments, this well-characterized bat coronavirus would be considered the parental strain against which the function of the new chimeric viruses would be assessed. With this comparison, the newly created chimeric viruses did not gain any function relative to the parental strain; the chimeric viruses did not replicate in cell culture any better than the parental WIV1. In addition, research that had been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals demonstrated that viruses similar to those proposed under the grant had reduced pathogenicity as compared to the parental viruses. For these reasons, it was not reasonably anticipated that the viruses involved in research under the grant would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route, and therefore did not meet the criteria for gain-of-function research described in the research funding pause.

"NIAID subsequently reviewed this grant under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions about Proposed Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens (HHS P3CO Framework). Again, a detailed staff review determined that the experiments described in the grant were not subject to the HHS P3CO Framework, because they were not reasonably expected to increase transmissibility or virulence of these viruses in humans.

"None of the studies proposed under this grant were designed to manipulate the viruses in a way that would increase their transmissibility or pathogenicity, and no NIAID funding was approved to support gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, as defined by United States Government criteria. For more information, please see the digital media kit Gain-of-Function Research Involving Potential Pandemic Pathogens."