Wuhan, U.S. Scientists Planned to Make Coronaviruses, Documents Leaked by DRASTIC Show

Scientists in the U.S. and China planned to create coronavirus genomes in order to study them, leaked documents show according to experts who spoke to Newsweek.

The plan was outlined in a proposal by the U.S. research organization EcoHealth Alliance to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which was leaked in September by a group of online researchers and correspondents known as the Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19 (DRASTIC). The documents could not be verified by Newsweek.

EcoHealth Alliance has been under scrutiny in recent months due to its work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a facility in the Chinese city of Wuhan that was the original epicenter of the COVID pandemic and where researchers study bat viruses. This research has placed it at the center of COVID lab leak theories.

Newsweek has previously reported on how DRASTIC uncovered details about research at the WIV, and how EcoHealth Alliance funneled U.S. government money to the lab.

The proposal, for a project called DEFUSE, details how scientists from EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology wanted to study the threat of bat-borne coronaviruses by sequencing samples from cave bats, reverse-engineering those samples to produce viruses, and then inserting these into mice to see what would happen in order to prepare for possible human outbreaks.

Coronaviruses are made up of RNA strands that are tens of thousands of letters long. Sequencing is the technique used to "read" these letters, and in doing so scientists can determine what sort of variant the virus is and track where it has spread.

One section of the proposal details how researchers wanted to sequence data "from a panel of closely related coronavirus strains, compare the genomes, and scan for errors."

It went on: "Consensus candidate genomes will be synthesized commercially using established techniques and genome-length RNA and electroporation to recover recombinant viruses."

Richard Ebright, board of governors professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, told Newsweek that a consensus sequence refers to a virus sequence that is obtained by putting a number of sequences together and recording the similarities between them.

"In theory," he said, "a consensus sequence represents an ideal, most highly functional, sequence."

Sequencing viruses is hard and commonly throws up errors. That is why you need to do it multiple times in order to identify these errors—which would make the synthetic virus non-viable otherwise.

On Tuesday, U.K. newspaper The Telegraph cited an anonymous World Health Organization (WHO) "collaborator" who said this section of the proposal shows that the U.S. and Wuhan scientists aimed to "create a new sequence that is essentially the average of [other coronaviruses]. It would be a new virus sequence, not a 100 per cent match to anything."

The collaborator went on to say the scientists would then create a virus from this sequence that "did not exist in nature."

It is a view that Ebright shares. He told Newsweek that this part of the proposal "explicitly" shows that researchers wanted to use synthetic coronavirus genomes to "create novel consensus coronaviruses."

However, other scientists Newsweek spoke to disputed this interpretation.

Robert Garry, a doctor of microbiology and a virology researcher at the Tulane University School of Medicine in Louisiana, said: "What they are proposing to do here is reconstitute [reconstruct] bat viruses related to SARS-CoV-1 [the viruses that causes SARS] already found in nature, not create a new virus genome... You certainly could not have generated SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID] this way.

"In fact what the DARPA applicants are proposing is the exact opposite... They are creating a virus genome that 100 percent already exists in nature.

"Not all virologists are comic book villains trying to assemble deadly viruses to purposefully or accidentally release on the world."

Jeremy S. Rossman, honorary senior lecturer in virology at the University of Kent, England, echoed the point.

He told Newsweek that the scientists were "not combining different viruses together to create a new totally different virus but using a technique to address the technical hurdle of sequencing new viruses—that sequencing errors occur.

"So to avoid the consequences of sequencing errors they create a consensus sequence from repeated sequences. This is not a way to create a new virus but a way to accurately recover the actual sequence of the starting virus they found in the cave."

Professor Andrew Rambaut, member of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, U.K., said the proposal showed that scientists wanted to compare closely related virus samples to correct sequencing errors and construct the corrected genomes.

This would be done to "reconstruct as closely as possible the viruses that were in the sample originally," he said. In other words, the team was aiming to make a virus that was the same as previous ones, not new.

"The whole point of the proposal was to assess the viruses found in bats to look at their potential for causing human epidemics," he said. "Creating arbitrarily different viruses would tell you nothing and is not what they were proposing to do."

The technique is not unique or unusual, according to David Evans, professor of virology at The Willie Russell Laboratories at the University of St Andrews, U.K.

Evans chimed with others that the method would not necessarily produce a new virus never before seen in nature, because it would be impossible to know unless the scientists went and sequenced every other virus in existence.

He also did not think the approach was necessarily risky. "The construction of chimeric viruses representing the 'average' sequence within a diverse population is not in my view inherently risky or dangerous. I don't think the use of this approach either helps support or refute the claims that SARS-CoV-2 is a 'lab leak,'" he said.

DARPA previously told Newsweek it "has never funded directly, nor indirectly as a subcontractor, any activity or researcher associated with the EcoHealth Alliance or Wuhan Institute of Virology."

Why, then, was the DEFUSE proposal rejected by DARPA? According to a document released by DRASTIC, the defense agency rejected the proposal partly because it did not provide adequate ethical or regulatory considerations.

For DRASTIC, though, the issue is a matter of downright danger. In a letter signed by several DRASTIC members calling for the sacking of EcoHealth Alliance president Peter Daszak, scientists wrote that the proposal aimed to create "novel chimeric viruses that are optimized to infect humans and that could unleash unknown and untold havoc," and that the proposal was "at best incredibly sloppy when it comes to biosafety."

One section of the proposal states that scientists intended to insert synthesized viral spike proteins into SARS-CoV backbones and then insert these into humanized mice.

The proposal suggests this would not have counted as notorious gain-of-function research, which aims to increase the activity of a virus, and which the U.S. at one stage banned because of the associated risks.

Craig Kaplan, associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Biological Sciences, tweeted that the DEFUSE proposal was "totally irresponsible" for suggesting the research would not have counted as gain-of-function.

Newsweek has contacted EcoHealth Alliance for comment. Newsweek was unable to contact the WIV, and attempted to contact the facility via EcoHealth Alliance.

wuhan institute of virology china
Security personnel stand outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China on February 3, 2021. Documents leaked by DRASTIC have shed light on coronavirus research before the COVID pandemic. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images