How do we know what NIH officials were told, and when? Because we now have publicly available information released by the NIH in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. We know that on February 1, 2020, the NIH held a conference call with a group of top virologists to discuss the possible origin of the virus. On that call, several of the researchers pointed out that laboratory manipulation of the virus was not only possible, but according to some, even likely. At that point, the NIH should have called for an urgent independent investigation. Instead, the NIH has sought to dismiss and discredit this line of inquiry.
Within days of the February 1 call, a group of virologists, including some who were on it, prepared the first draft of a paper on the “Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2.” The final draft was published a month later, in March 2020. Despite the initial observations on February 1 that the virus showed signs of possible laboratory manipulation, the March paper concluded that there was overwhelming evidence that it had emerged from nature.
The authors claimed that the virus could not possibly have come from a laboratory because “the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.” Yet the single footnote (number 20) backing up that key claim refers to a paper from 2014, which means that the authors’ supposedly “irrefutable evidence” was at least five years out of date.
Owing to their refusal to support an independent investigation of the lab-leak hypothesis, the NIH and other US federal government agencies have been subjected to a wave of FOIA requests from a range of organizations, including US Right to Know and The Intercept. These FOIA disclosures, as well as internet searches and “whistleblower” leaks, have revealed some startling information.
Consider, for example, a March 2018 grant proposal submitted to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) by EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) and researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and the University of North Carolina (UNC). On page 11, the applicants explain in detail how they intend to alter the genetic code of bat coronaviruses to insert precisely the feature that is the most unusual part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Although DARPA did not approve this grant, the work may have proceeded anyway. We just don’t know. But, thanks to another FOIA request, we do know that this group carried out similar gain-of-function experiments on another coronavirus, the one that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
In yet other cases, FOIA disclosures have been heavily redacted, including a remarkable effort to obscure 290 pages of documents going back to February 2020, including the Strategic Plan for COVID-19 Research drafted that April by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Such extensive redactions deeply undermine public trust in science, and have only served to invite additional urgent questions from researchers and independent investigators.
Here are ten things that we do know.
Continued next page