The Lab-Leak Debate Just Got Even Messier

Authors: Daniel Engber  1 day agoLike

As the pandemic drags on into a bleak and indeterminate future, so does the question of its origins. The consensus view from 2020, that in the likeliest scenario SARS-CoV-2 emerged naturally, through a jump from bats to humans (maybe with another animal between), persists unchanged. But suspicions that the outbreak started from a laboratory accident remain, shall we say, endemic. For months now, a steady drip of revelations has sustained an atmosphere of profound unease.[keyword]=news-tech

The latest piece of evidence came out this week in the form of a set of murkily sourced PDFs, with their images a bit askew. The main one purports to be an unfunded research grant proposal from Peter Daszak, the president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a global nonprofit focused on emerging infectious diseases, that was allegedly submitted to DARPA in early 2018 (and subsequently rejected), for a $14.2 million project aimed at “defusing the threat of bat-borne coronaviruses.” Released earlier this week by a group of guerrilla lab-leak snoops called DRASTIC, the proposal includes a plan to study potentially dangerous pathogens by generating full-length, infectious bat coronaviruses in a lab and inserting genetic features that could make coronaviruses better able to infect human cells. (Daszak and EcoHealth did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)

The document seems almost tailor-made to buttress one specific theory of a laboratory origin: that SARS-CoV-2 wasn’t simply brought into a lab by scientists and then released by accident, but rather pieced together in a deliberate fashion. In fact, the work described in the proposal fits so well into that narrative of a “gain-of-function experiment gone wrong” that some wondered if it might be too good to be true. Central figures in the coronavirus-origins debate were involved: Among Daszak’s listed partners on the grant were Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an American virologist known for doing coronavirus gain-of-function studies in his lab, and Shi Zhengli, the renowned virus hunter from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Shi Zhengli has not responded to a request for comment. A UNC spokesperson responded on behalf of Baric, noting that “the grant applicant and DARPA are best positioned to explain the proposal.”)

There is good reason to believe the document is genuine. The Atlantic has confirmed that a grant proposal with the same identifying number and co-investigators was submitted to DARPA in 2018. The proposal that circulated online includes an ambitious scheme to inoculate wild bats against coronaviruses, carried out in concert with the National Wildlife Health Center, a research lab in Wisconsin. A spokesperson for the U.S. Geological Survey, which oversees the center, acknowledged this connection and affirmed the identifying number and co-investigators, noting that the agency’s involvement in the project ended with DARPA’s rejection of the grant proposal. “This is the proposal that was not funded,” USGS Acting Public Affairs Chief Rachel Pawlitz said after reviewing the PDF. She could not, however, vouch for the document in its entirety.

Jared Adams, DARPA’s chief of communications, said in an emailed statement that the agency was not at liberty to discuss proposals submitted as part of its emerging-pathogenic-threat program, which was launched in January 2018, and that DARPA has never funded “any activity or researcher associated with EcoHealth Alliance or Wuhan Institute of Virology.” An article about the proposal published yesterday in The Intercept points to a tweet by Daszak last weekend, before the PDF was widely shared, that refers obliquely to the release of unfunded grant proposals.

For anyone looking for the great, final vindication of the lab-leak hypothesis, this document will leave you wanting. Does the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic have an unnatural origin? The answer hasn’t changed: probably not. But we have learned something quite disturbing in the past few days, simply from how and when this information came to light.

The pandemic-origins debate is a big, confusing mess—but it’s an important mess, so bear with us. The hottest news in the leaked proposal concerns the researcher’s plan to sift through a large trove of genomic-sequence data drawn from samples of bat blood, feces, and other fluids, in search of (among other things) new kinds of “furin cleavage sites.” When these are encoded into just the right spot on the spike protein of a coronavirus, they allow that spike to be opened up by an enzyme found in human cells. According to the proposal, “high-risk” versions of these sites, once identified, would then be introduced via genetic engineering into SARS-like coronaviruses.

Why does this matter? We’ve long known that the presence of such a site in SARS-CoV-2 increased its pathogenic power, and we also know that similar features have not been found in any other SARS-like coronavirus (though we may find them in the future). For lab-leak proponents, these facts—combined with certain details of the furin cleavage site’s structure—strongly hint at human intervention. As the science journalist Nicholas Wade argued in an influential lab-leak-theory brief last spring, this genetic insertion “lies at the heart of the puzzle of where the virus came from.” The virologist David Baltimore even told Wade that the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 furin cleavage site was “the smoking gun for the origin of the virus.” (Baltimore later walked back his claim.)

As many scientists have since pointed out, the mere presence of the furin cleavage site is not dispositive of a Frankenstein experiment gone wrong. For example, the same genetic feature has come about, quite naturally and independently, in plenty of other, more distantly related coronaviruses, including those that cause the common cold. According to a “critical review” co-authored by 21 experts on viruses and viral evolution that was posted as a preprint in July, “simple evolutionary mechanisms can readily explain” the site’s presence in SARS-CoV-2, and “there is no logical reason” why it would look the way it does if it had been engineered inside a lab. “Further,” the authors wrote, “there is no evidence of prior research at the [Wuhan Institute of Virology] involving the artificial insertion of complete furin cleavage sites into coronaviruses.”