SARS-CoV-2 (SARS2 – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome 2) was ferocious, highly contagious, and deadly for the elderly and the obese. SARS1, its granddaddy, sickened 8000 and killed 774 in 2002. A cousin, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), sickened 2500 and killed 885 in 2012. SARS2 has sickened over 182 million and killed almost four million, and it’s not over. Why was SARS2 so incredibly more contagious, powerful and deadly than its ancestors?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, knew why, and so did his friend Peter Daszak at EcoHealth Alliance, which funded coronavirus “gain of function” research, and so did Shi Zhengli, the Bat Lady, who conducted that research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
Daszak and Shi were at the forefront of the effort to “get ahead of” the next virus by taking existing viruses and making them more deadly for humans, hoping to find new ways of containing them and inventing new vaccines. They knew from their work what made SARS2 so different, so powerful, and they knew this as soon as the pandemic began. And they kept this information from us, aided by virtually the entire international community of virologists, and a press and social media that suppressed any suggestion that “gain of function” research was responsible for the beast that was SARS2.
A perfect storm
Fauci knew first and most significantly that SARS2, unlike its granddaddy SARS1, had what is called a “furin cleavage site” in its spike protein. The SARS2 virus has a spike protein that attacks the human cell. That spike protein has two parts.
S1, the first part, does the attaching work by finding the virus’s target, a protein called angiotensin converting enzyme-2 (ACE2), which is found on the surface of the cells that line our airways. S2, the second part of the spike protein, fuses with the cell’s membrane, enabling the viral genome to get into the cell and then trick the “protein making machinery” of the cell into making new viruses. Before the spike protein can do its work, parts S1 and S2 must be cut apart, or cleaved. The human cell itself does the cleaving, with furin, a protein cutting tool on the surface of the cell. SARS2 was dreadfully deadly because it had a furin cleavage site inserted precisely at the junction of the virus’s spike protein parts S1 and S2.
Furin will cleave or cut any protein chain that bears its signature target cutting site. That signature is the protein sequence of the amino acid units proline-arginine-arginine-alanine (PRRA). And guess what, PRRA is the amino acid sequence that has been inserted at SARS2’s furin cleavage site. Thus, the site includes a double arginine “codon,” called a “double CGG,” (a codon is a sequence of three nucleotides — molecules that are the building blocks of nucleic acids like DNA, which together form a unit of genetic code in a DNA molecule), which happens to be a codon favored by human cells but not coronaviruses, and which is used in coronavirus laboratories to increase the potency of viruses.
And so, a perfect storm. SARS2 is optimally designed to assist the human cell in accepting the virus, for it has a furin cleavage site positioned precisely between its parts S1 and S2, and is equipped with human-friendly codons. The furin from the human cell is pulled almost magnetically to that cleavage site.
Drs. Fauci, Daszak and Shi knew that no other SARS-related beta coronavirus has a furin cleavage site. The rest of these viruses have parts S1 and S2 of the spike protein cleaved at a different site and with a different mechanism. And everyone in the virologist community has known since 1992 that you can make a virus much more deadly in the laboratory by giving it a furin cleavage site at the S1/S2 junction. There are at least eight published gain of function experiments adding a furin site to a virus to make it more effective, one published by Dr. Shi herself. All of these experiments had the ostensible purpose of learning how to combat the viruses of the future, by creating them before nature did, and then finding ways to defend against them.
Other evidence for a laboratory origin of SARS2, and the second reason SARS2 was so unbelievably contagious, lies in the virus’s binding efficiency to human ACE2. SARS2 has a “tenfold to 20-fold” higher binding efficiency than SARS1. ACE2 is the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, the “receptor” protein, which is the entry point for the virus. Several studies have shown that from the very first cases, SARS2 displayed an “optimized configuration” and “without any evidence of early natural mutations.” A lab could enhance binding efficiency, while nature would use the trial and error of mutation, of which SARS2 showed no evidence.
Drs. Fauci, Daszak and Shi also knew that SARS2 had come out of the shoot fully adapted to humans, the third reason it could spread so rapidly. Because it was already efficient at attacking human cells, the virus has not changed much since it first appeared. SARS2 has limited diversity across its genomes, and the earliest strains are remarkably similar to SARS1 at the late stages of the 2013 epidemic, only after SARS1 had gone through multiple adaptations that made it more effective in human transmission. Viruses with a natural origin mutate; viruses created in the lab don’t need to.
More evidence of a lab origin for the virus lays in the fact that SARS2 doesn’t take to bats very well. If SARS2 had in fact originated in the bat caves of Yunnan province in southern China populated by the rufous horseshoe bat, and then in a zoological spillover entered either an intermediate host or directly infected humans, the virus should find a hospitable home in those bats. To the contrary, it turns out that SARS2 does a poor job infecting bats. And not just bats. It also turns out that human cells take to SARS2 far better than other animals do. A 2020 study of 13 animal species found that the SARS2 spike protein had “the highest overall binding energy” for human ACE2. Humans are SARS2’s favorite target, bar none.
Dr. Fauci knew that the combination of high human adaptation to SARS2 and low bat susceptibility meant that there was a significant evolutionary distance between SARS2 and bats, a strong indication that the virus had been engineered by humans for humans, and had not naturally “spilled over” from bats to an intermediate host and then to humans.
Fauci also knew early on that SARS2 had not behaved like SARS1 and MERS, both of which went through multiple mutations before being able to infect an intermediate host (civets for SARS1 and camels for MERS) and yet more mutations before being able to jump to humans. After SARS1 had jumped from bats to civets, it went through six mutations before it became a mild pathogen for humans, then 14 more mutations that made it more potent, then a final four before the epidemic began in earnest.
SARS2 went through no mutations on its path to a full pandemic. After SARS2 erupted, the Chinese searched intensively for an intermediate host, a search which covered 80,000 animals, and were not able to find one. It is now eighteen months since the pandemic began. It took three months for scientists to find the intermediate host civets for SARS1 and nine months to find the intermediate host camels for MERS. Fauci certainly knew as time went on that the evidence increasingly pointed to a lab source.
Drs. Fauci, Daszak and Shi also knew that the Chinese story that the virus had jumped from bats at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan into an intermediate host and then to humans was a lie. In fact, three of the four patients with the earliest recorded onset of SARS2 originated outside the market and had no connection to it. The Chinese didn’t abandon this lie until May 2020 when they were forced to acknowledge that the virus had not begun in the market.
Drs. Fauci, Daszak and Shi, and indeed the entire world community of virologists, also knew that, since 2015, and even before, Dr. Shi and her associates at the WIV had been conducting extensive efforts to take bat coronaviruses and, using human cells grown in cultures and “humanized” mice, enhance the virus’s ability to infect humans — “gain of function.” Although a military purpose can’t be ruled out (since the Chinese army was on site at the WIV), “gain of function” research is intended to expand our knowledge of viruses to anticipate future, more deadly strains. Plain and simple, Dr. Shi was genetically engineering coronaviruses to attack humans.
The virologist community also knew that Fauci had approved and supervised NIAID grants to fund Dr. Shi’s work, parceled out by Dr. Daszak, who collaborated with her. The grant language is explicit: Dr. Shi was going to use the grant to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells. In 2015 Dr. Shi and Dr. Ralph Baric (UNC) had successfully created a novel virus, able to infect the cells of the human airway, by taking the backbone of the SARS1 virus and replacing its spike protein with one from a bat virus. Dr. Shi then returned to China to use what she had learned in the partnership with Dr. Baric. Drs. Fauci and Daszak knew that Shi had collected some 1300 bat samples at the WIV from eight trips to the bat-infested caves of Yunnan in southern China.
Stop for a moment to consider this: SARS2 breaks out in Wuhan China, some 900 miles from the bat caves of the horseshoe bat, which carries the beta-coronaviruses, the family to which SARS2 belongs, at a time of year when these bats were already in hibernation, the breakout in a city — Wuhan — that is home to China’s leading center of coronavirus research, “at the doorstep” of the place where Dr. Shi was “genetically engineering bat coronaviruses to attack human cells.” And yet it is conspiracy theory to suggest that the virus might have leaked out of the lab?
We don’t know when Dr. Fauci was told by the American intelligence community that three workers involved in the virus gain of function work came down sick with flu-like symptoms in November of 2019. But certainly Dr. Shi knew. Did she tell her collaborator Dr. Daszak? That group sickness certainly has the makings of a coronavirus accident.
But the strongest evidence for a lab origin for SARS2 is found in the lies, obfuscation, destruction and withholding of evidence, and bullying of the Chinese, who have the most to lose if the virus is found to have a lab origin, since it was their lab and their negligence that let it escape.
In the immediate weeks after the outbreak, the Chinese viciously silenced the whistleblowers and destroyed evidence. The head of their CDC refused an offer by American CDC head Robert Redfield to send a team to the WIV to rule out a leak from the lab. They kept WHO investigators out of China for almost a month. The Chinese lied at every turn, from the assertion that the virus began its rampage in the Huanan fish market, that the Chinese military was not conducting any virus experiments at the WIV, to the claim that there were no live bats ever kept at the WIV, and that none of the virus experimenters at the WIV ever got sick (there had been no reports of unusual diseases, according to Dr. Shi).
One of the biggest lies was from Dr. Shi, who told Dr. Daszak that the WIV database of 22,000 virus samples and sequences had been taken offline due to hacking attempts during the pandemic. In truth, the database had been taken offline on September 12, 2019, some three months before the announced start of the pandemic.
The effort to discredit the possibility that the virus was the result of a lab leak was led by the very people who stood the most to lose if that turned out to be the case: the virologists behind the gain of function research, led by Dr. Daszak himself, an effort in which Dr. Fauci was complicit in his silence and his support of Dr. Daszak. The bullying was blatant and vicious: Daszak authored a statement joined by 27 scientists which “strong[ly] condemned conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” Daszak didn’t even have the honor to disclose his clear conflict of interest by virtue of his role in funding Dr. Shi’s gain of function work at the WIV: “We declare no competing interests.”
To say the least, aside from a brave few, the virologists were spineless and dishonorable. Any virologist who spoke up put his or her job and grants in jeopardy. The press and the social media giants followed step and suppressed any suggestion of a lab leak.
Brave scientists — Nicholas Wade, Richard Ebright, Gilles Demaneuff, Rodolphe de Maistre, Robert Redfield, Steven Quay, Richard Muller, and Jamie Metzl among them — have come forward to urge that the origin of SARS2 be fully explored, that President Joe Biden force the Chinese to disclose the databases and the gain of function research, and to allow their scientists to be interrogated.
They do not insist that natural origin be excluded from this search for the truth. But they do insist that there be a full, fair and unbiased search. When WHO sent its research team to China, it included Dr. Daszak, perhaps the man who had absolutely the most to lose if a lab leak was established. Enough is enough, we need a fair and impartial search.
As of now, the Chinese say the search is over: We will look no further and will disclose nothing. Dr. Shi has taken to name calling: “I offer some advice … shut your dirty mouths.” Let us hope the intelligence community report the president has ordered will not be a whitewash. There are people of goodwill and honesty on both sides of the aisle. Unless we know the true origin of SARS2, we cannot prepare for the next outbreak. And no matter what the outcome of the search, let us hope that the international community of virologists finds its spine and honor, and at the very least, ends gain of function research.