Wuhan Lab Wanted to Genetically Enhance Bat Viruses to Study Human Risks, Documents Show

Less than two years before the COVID-19 pandemic began, scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology planned to genetically alter viruses to make them more infectious for humans and release them into bat caves.

The research proposal was part of a trove of documents released this week by a group of scientists and activists who are trying to determine the origins of the pandemic, which has killed 4.7 million people around the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The Wuhan scientists were listed as partners on a funding proposal the environmental health nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance made to the U.S. government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)

DARPA rejected the proposal and it is not clear what happened to the research project, which the documents described as having "a good running start"

The proposal promises to fuel the controversy around the Wuhan lab's role in the pandemic. The Chinese government maintains that the outbreak began at a wet market and bristles at suggestions that experiments conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology led to a leak of dangerous pathogens.

A growing number of scientists and governments around the world including the Biden administration, have refused to rule out the lab leak theory and demanded that China cooperate fully in a global scientific investigation.

The growing suspicion of China's official version has been driven in large measure by the Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19 or DRASTIC, which released the documents this week. The documents could not be verified by Newsweek.

Throughout the pandemic, about two dozen DRASTIC researchers and correspondents, many anonymous, working independently from many different countries, have uncovered obscure documents, pieced together the information, and explained it all in long threads on Twitter. Gradually, the quality of their research has gained the acclaim of professional scientists and journalists.

Richard Ebright, board of governors professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University and laboratory and director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, tweeted out the findings of the latest DRASTIC document dump and said the world should be furious at the news.

The documents showed researchers aspired to genetically alter coronaviruses and monitor their release and transmission in bat caves to determine the risks those viruses posed to humans.

In a Monday post on DRASTIC Research's website, the group said documents shared by an unnamed whistleblower showed the EcoHealth Alliance "collaborated" with the Wuhan Institute of Virology to "carry out advanced and dangerous human pathogenicity Bat Coronavirus research" through a grant proposal EcoHealth Alliance filed with DARPA.

DARPA is a research agency within the U.S. Department of Defense which aims to "preserve military readiness by protecting against the infectious disease threat" through its PREEMPT program.

In its funding request, EcoHealth Alliance "proposed injecting deadly chimeric bat coronaviruses collected by the Wuhan Institute of Virology into humanised and 'batified' mice," DRASTIC Research said.

Wuhan Institute of Virology funding request
Documents shared by DRASTIC Research this week appeared to show a funding request from researchers who wanted to study the risks of coronavirus “spillover” to humans less than two years before the coronavirus pandemic began. Above, an aerial view shows the P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on April 17, 2020. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

A copy of EcoHealth Alliance's proposal shared by DRASTIC Research said the proposed project aimed to "defuse the potential for spillover of novel bat-origin high-zoonotic risk SARS-related coronaviruses in Asia." The proposal's executive summary said researchers would "intensively sample bats" in field locations where scientists "identified high spillover risk" for coronaviruses.

EcoHealth Alliance wrote in the document shared by DRASTIC Research that it planned to work with researchers at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, the University of North Carolina, the Palo Alto Research Center in California, U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center and the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China. It requested $14 million from DARPA to conduct its research, which was estimated to take three and a half years.

The proposal was dated March 2018, less than two years before SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, began spreading around the world. The virus is believed to have begun spreading among humans in Wuhan, where the first wave of infections was reported.

Thanks to DRASTIC, the world now knows that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had an extensive collection of coronaviruses gathered over many years of foraging in the bat caves, and that many of them—including the closest known relative to the pandemic virus, SARS-CoV-2—came from a mineshaft where three men died from a suspected SARS-like disease in 2012. It knows that the Institute was actively working with these viruses, using inadequate safety protocols, in ways that could have triggered the pandemic, and that the lab and Chinese authorities have gone to great lengths to conceal these activities. It is also clear the first cases appeared weeks before the outbreak at the Huanan wet market that was once thought to be ground zero. None of that is conclusive proof that a lab leak caused the virus.

As the DRASTIC revelations swayed a once skeptical Western media and scientific community, President Joe Biden ordered a U.S. intelligence investigation to determine the origins of the pandemic. The intelligence agencies issued an inconclusive report last month.

In one document shared by DRASTIC Research, a DARPA official wrote he was not recommending funding for the project. DARPA's assessment of the project said it "aims to identify and model spillover risk of novel, pandemic-potential SARS-related coronaviruses (SARSr-CoVs) in Asia, focusing specifically on known hotspot bat caves in China."

While DARPA said the project had "a good running start" since field locations had already been identified, it noted "several weaknesses" within the proposal, including DARPA's "concern that vaccine approaches may lack sufficient epitope coverage to effectively protect against the diverse and evolving quasi species of the many coronaviruses found in the bat caves."

When contacted for comment about the documents released by DRASTIC Research, DARPA told Newsweek that it could not share identifying information about individuals or organizations that submit grant proposals. Even so, DARPA said it "has never funded directly, nor indirectly as a subcontractor, any activity or researcher associated with the EcoHealth Alliance or Wuhan Institute of Virology."

Newsweek reached out to EcoHealth Alliance for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.