A team of scientists from Wuhan and the US outlined plans to create new coronaviruses just over 18 months before the first Covid-19 outbreak was reported in China, leaked documents have revealed.
The researchers submitted a grant application in March 2018 to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) that outlined a $14.2m project aimed at “defusing the threat of bat-borne coronaviruses”.
The proposal included a proposal “to study potentially dangerous pathogens”, said The Atlantic, by “generating full-length, infectious bat coronaviruses in a lab and inserting genetic features that could make coronaviruses better able to infect human cells”.
The grant application was submitted by British zoologist Peter Daszak on behalf of a consortium, but was vetoed. In the letter of rejection, Darpa explained that the proposal “hardly” addressed or discussed the “ethical, legal, and social issues” associated with the experiment.
All the same, said The Atlantic, the leaked application seems “almost tailor-made to buttress one specific theory of a laboratory origin”: that Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, “wasn’t simply brought into a lab by scientists and then released by accident, but rather pieced together in a deliberate fashion”.
An anonymous whistle-blower handed the grant documents to “guerrilla lab-leak snoops” Drastic, a group of internet activists investigating the origins of pandemics. Wuhan scientists have repeatedly rejected claims that Covid-19 was created in a lab in the Chinese city at the epicentre of the first outbreak.
A genetics expert working with the World Health Organization (WHO) told The Daily Telegraph that if the virus had been produced by scientists, it would explain why a close match has never been found in nature.
The WHO collaborator, who asked not to be named, said that in such a scenario, the scientists "would take various sequences from similar coronaviruses and create a new sequence that is essentially the average of them. It would be a new virus sequence, not a 100% match to anything.”
To date, the closest match found to the genetic make-up of Covid-19 is that of a virus strain called Banal-52, which was discovered among bats dwelling in limestone caves in northern Laos last month and shares 96.88% of the genome.
Science journal Nature reported at the time that “researchers say that parts of their genetic code bolster claims that the virus behind Covid-19 has a natural origin”. But according to The Telegraph, scientists “expect a direct ancestor to be around a 99.98% match – and none has been found so far”.
The leaked proposal “does not provide conclusive evidence that the virus that caused the pandemic emerged from a lab”, said The Intercept. Several scientists told the US news site that knowledge of its existence has “shifted the terrain of the debate”, however.
“The information in the proposal certainly changes my thoughts,” said Martin Wikelski, a director at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour, whose work was referenced in the grant application. “In fact,” he added, “a possible transmission chain is now logically consistent – which it was not before I read the proposal.”
But other experts are continuing to debunk the lab-origins claims, pointing out that most of the genetic engineering work proposed in the application was to be carried out in North Carolina, rather than China.
“Given that the work wasn’t funded and wasn’t proposed to take place in Wuhan anyway, it’s hard to assess any bearing on the origin of Sars-CoV-2,” Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Utah, told The Intercept.
A natural origin remains “the most plausible explanation”, concluded The Atlantic. But the recent leak reveals the “toxic shroud of secrecy” surrounding such research that has fuelled conspiracy theories, the site added.
This “steady drip of revelations” has “sustained an atmosphere of profound unease” as the battle to contain Covid-19 continues.