Biotechnology, Commentaries, Health March 24, 2021

An Interview with Richard Ebright: The WHO Investigation Members Were “participants in disinformation”

by Jonathan Latham

By Jorge Casesmeiro Roger
Molecular biologist Dr. Richard H. Ebright, PhD is one of the twenty six world scientists who signed the Open Letter: “Call for a Full and Unrestricted International Forensic Investigation into the Origins of COVID-19”. A document released last March 4 by the Wall Street Journal and Le Monde that reignited the debate over the pandemic’s origin after the WHO-convened mission to Wuhan.

Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University, Dr. Richard H. Ebright, PhD, is also Laboratory Director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology and serves as project leader on two National Institutes of Health research grants.

Dr. Richard Ebright received his AB in Biology and his PhD in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from Harvard University. He has more than one hundred sixty publications and more than forty issued and pending patents. He is member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Microbiology, and the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Dr. Ebright is a member of the Institutional Biosafety Committee of Rutgers University and the Antimicrobial Resistance Committee of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. He is also been a member of the Working Group on Pathogen Security of the state of New Jersey, and the Controlling Dangerous Pathogens Project of the Center for International Security Studies. He was a founding member of the Cambridge Working Group, which advocated for biosafety, biosecurity, and risk-benefit reviews for gain-of-function research on potential pandemic pathogens.

 

Dr. Ebright, you are one of the 26 scientific signers of the Open Letter that stopped the release of the WHO-convened mission Interim Report and has reopened the CoV-2 origin debate. Do you think the final report of this WHO/China joint team is going to shut down COVID origin controversy?

No.

The Open Letter explains in detail the structural and functional limitations of the WHO-China Wuhan collaborative team: exclusive Chinese field work, lack of complete access to lab installations or databases, consensus process in report making…

A credible investigation would have had Terms of Reference that: 1) Acknowledged the possibility of laboratory origin, 2) Ensured access of investigators to records, samples, personnel, and facilities at the Wuhan laboratories that handle bat SARS-related coronaviruses, 3) Enabled collection of evidence, not mere meet-and-greet photo-ops, 4) Authorized an investigation of months, not mere days. And 5) A credible investigation also would have had conflict-of-interest-free investigators, not persons who were subjects of the research and/or closely associated with subjects of the investigation.

You have said several times that this WHO mission was literally “a charade”.

Yes, its members were willing –and, in at least one case, enthusiastic– participants in disinformation.

The pre-negotiated “Terms of Reference” for the WHO study did not even acknowledge the possibility of a laboratory origin of the virus and did not even mention the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), the Wuhan Center for Disease Control (CDC) or the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products.

Regarding the inspection personnel, at least one member of the WHO mission team, Ecohealth Alliance President Dr. Peter Daszak, seems to have conflicts of interest that should have disqualified him from being part of an investigation of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yes. Daszak was the contractor who funded the laboratory at WIV that potentially was the source of the virus (with subcontracts from $200 million from the US Department of State and $7 million from the US National Institutes of Health), and he was a collaborator and co-author on research projects at the laboratory.

The Open Letter also lists the elements of “What a full investigation should look like”. So again, Dr. Ebright, if you were in charge of a forensic team to investigate in Wuhan the origins of the pandemic: what would you like to see first? What kind of questions would you ask and to who?

A credible forensic investigation would require access to records, samples, personnel, and facilities at WIV, the Wuhan CDC and the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products. It would entail inspection of electronic and paper records, inspection of freezer and refrigerator samples, environmental sampling of facilities, and confidential interviews with personnel–including previous and current construction, maintenance, janitorial, disposal, security, animal-facility, laboratory, and administrative personnel.

Whenever asked if this virus could have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, your answer has been: “Yes (…) This cannot and should not be dismissed”. A study on COVID origin of Dr. Steven Quay, another signer of the Open Letter, calculates the lab hypotheses to be a 99.8% probability.

At this point in time, there is no secure basis to assign relative probabilities to the natural-accident hypothesis and the laboratory-accident hypothesis.

But given the fact that lab leak is a possibility, what chance do you give for a natural zoonotic origin of this pandemic? 

At this point in time, all scientific data related to the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 and the epidemiology of COVID-19 are equally consistent with a natural-accident origin or a laboratory-accident origin.

What would you say to the scientist who declined to comment on the Open Letter because it does not come from virologists?

The claim is unsound.

There were virologists among the signers of the Open Letter. There even were coronavirologists among the signers of the Open Letter.

More important, COVID-19 affects every person on the planet. Not just virologists.

Dr. Ebright, you are a microbiologist and molecular biologist, what light can you shed on this matter from your fields of expertise?

Microbiologists and molecular biologists are as qualified as virologists to assess the relevant science and science policies. Virology is a subset, not a superset, of microbiology and molecular biology. The sequencing, sequence analysis, cell culture, animal-infection studies, and other laboratory procedures used by virologists are not materially different from the procedures used by other microbiologists and molecular biologists.

I guess that is why the second point of the Open Letter research proposal is precisely to create a multidisciplinary team.

It is crucial that any team reviewing the issues include not only research scientists, but also biosafety, biosecurity, and science policy specialists.

What biological evidence regarding the structure and behaviour of SARS-CoV-2 points to a pure zoonosis? And what to the lab theory?

The genome sequence of the outbreak virus indicates that its progenitor was either the horseshoe-bat coronavirus RaTG13, or a closely related bat coronavirus.

RaTG13 was collected by Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2013 from a horseshoe-bat colony in a mine in Yunnan province, where miners had died from a SARS-like pneumonia in 2012, was partly sequenced by WIV in 2013-2016, was fully sequenced by WIV in 2018-2019, and was published by WIV in 2020.

Bat coronaviruses are present in nature in multiple parts of China.

Therefore, the first human infection could have occurred as a natural accident, with a virus passing from a bat to a human, possibly through another animal. There is clear precedent for this. The first entry of the SARS virus into the human population occurred as a natural accident in a rural part of Guangdong province in 2002.

But bat coronaviruses are also collected and studied by laboratories in multiple parts of China, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Therefore, the first human infection also could have occurred as a laboratory accident, with a virus accidentally infecting a field collection staffer, a field survey staffer, or a laboratory staffer, followed by transmission from the staffer to the public. There also is clear precedent for this. The second, third, fourth and fifth entries of the SARS virus into human populations occurred as a laboratory accident in Singapore in 2003, a laboratory accident in Taipei in 2003, and two separate laboratory accidents in Beijing in 2004.

So for you there is still a fifty-fifty chance?

At this point in time, there is no secure basis to assign relative probabilities to the natural-accident hypothesis and the laboratory-accident hypothesis.

Nevertheless, there are three lines of circumstantial evidence that are worth noting.

Proceed, Doctor.

First, the outbreak occurred in Wuhan, a city of 11 million persons that does not contain horseshoe-bat colonies, that is tens of kilometers
from, and that is outside the flight range of, the nearest known horseshoe-bat colonies.  Furthermore, the outbreak occurred at a time of year when horseshoe bats are in hibernation and do not leave colonies

 Another one.

Second, the outbreak occurred in Wuhan, on the doorstep of the laboratory that conducts the world’s largest research project on horseshoe bat viruses, that has the world’s largest collection of horseshoe-bat viruses, and that possessed and worked with the world’s closest sequenced relative of the outbreak virus. The laboratory actively searched for new horseshoe-bat viruses in horseshoe-bat colonies in caves in remote rural areas in Yunnan province, brought those new horseshoe-bat viruses to Wuhan, and then mass-produced, genetically manipulated, and studied those new horseshoe-bat viruses, year-round, inside Wuhan.

 A remarkable coincidence. The last one?

Third, the bat-SARS-related-coronavirus projects at the Wuhan Institute of Virology used personal protective equipment (usually just gloves; sometimes not even gloves) and biosafety standards (usually just biosafety level 2) that would pose very high risk of infection of field-collection, field-survey, or laboratory staff upon contact with a virus having the transmission properties of SARS-CoV-2.

The lab leak hypotheses, as raised in the Open Letter, should address four possible scenarios that do not imply genetic manipulation in a Gain-of-Function (GoF) experiment. But this chance cannot be excluded. Dr. Ebright, when the pandemic started you declared: “There’s absolutely nothing in the genome sequence of this virus that indicates the virus was engineered”. Would you reassert this today?

The genome sequence of this virus shows no signatures of human manipulation.

But Dr. Ralph Baric, who is considered the US leading expert in coronavirus, so he probably is the world one, says that is possible to engineer a virus in a lab without leaving a trace of the manipulation.

The fact that the genome sequence of this virus shows no signatures of human manipulation rules out the kinds of gain-of-function (GoF) research that leave signatures. But this does not rule out kinds of GoF research that do not leave signatures.

The chance that CoV-2 is a GoF virus does not imply that the leak could have occurred during a bioweapons program. Open Letter signatories do not address this scenario, that you firmly exclude. Be that as it may, Dr. Ebright, as a longstanding opponent of biological weapons proliferation (Nature: Jan. 24/02 & Jan. 15/12) and Founding Member of the Harvard “Cambridge Working Group Consensus Statement on the Creation of Potential Pandemic Pathogens (PPPs)”, does the current crisis demand a new debate and moratorium on these highly risky experiments, and this these time with a more international engagement?

Yes.

What went wrong for the Cambridge Working Group thesis during the 2014-2016 USA official moratorium and deliberative process on Gain-of-Function Research of Concern (GoFRoC)?

The Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have systematically thwarted efforts by the White House, the Congress, scientists, and science policy specialists to regulate GoF research of concern and even to require risk-benefit review for projects involving GoF research of concern.

In 2014, the Obama White House implemented a “Pause” in federal funding for GoF research of concern.  However, the document announcing the Pause stated in a footnote that: “An exception from pause may be obtained if head of funding agency determines research is urgently necessary to protect public health or national security”. Unfortunately, the NIAID Director and the NIH Director exploited this loophole to issue exemptions to projects subject to the Pause –preposterously asserting the exempted research was “urgently necessary to protect public health or national security”– thereby nullifying the Pause.

In 2017, the Trump Administration announced a Potential Pandemic Pathogens Control and Oversight (P3CO) Framework that implemented a requirement for risk-benefit review of GoF research of concern. However, the P3CO Framework relies on the funding agency to flag and forward proposals for risk-benefit review.  Unfortunately, the NIAID Director and the NIH Director have declined to flag and forward proposals for risk-benefit review, thereby nullifying the P3CO Framework.

Proponents of GoF experiments with PPPs have won all the debates of the last decade. But I wonder why some of its most prestigious critics are keeping now such a low profile, when not a thunderous silence. And I am thinking of one of the leading organizers of the Cambridge Working Group: the Harvard epidemiologist Dr. Marc Lipsitch, who in 2018 was still warning that influenza GoF studies could provoke a pandemic on a scale never seen before.

The silence of some former leaders of the Cambridge Working Group has been disappointing.

It was, by the way, reading the cited Dr. Lipsitch paper that I came to know that perhaps the first experimental effort to create a PPP in a lab was the 2005 study titled: “Characterization of the reconstructed 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic virus”. Dr. Lipsitch wondered about it: “Whether it was wise to construct a virus that was historically associated with the worst pandemic in modern history”. Do you remember this concrete GoF study? Are you aware, fifteen years after, of any positive outcome of it? In conclusion, Dr. Ebright: was it wise to do it?

I consistently have stated that: “This was research that should not have been performed” (NYT: Oct. 05/05 & Jan. 29/06).

And no, the work has not yielded information useful for preventing pandemics or responding to pandemics.

Drs. Imperiale and Casadevall, both Cambridge Work Group Board Members, echoed last summer: “Most experts who have been studying and discussing preparedness agree that the source of the pathogen does not significantly change the nature of the response. Is that right, Dr. Ebright, or maybe the outcome of knowing CoV-2 origin could have saved lives?

Understanding the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is not crucial for responding to the present pandemic. But it is crucial –absolutely crucial– for preventing future pandemics.

Regarding prevention, it was precisely Dr. Peter Daszak, with a renewed grant from the NIH, now to target deadly viruses in South Asia, who stated in August 2020: “We’re going to work in remote parts of Malaysia and Thailand to get to the front line of where the next pandemic is going to start”. Now, though Dr. Daszak is not openly cited in the March 4 Open Letter, he is clearly the WHO team member with a more biased vision and unresolved conflict of interest when it comes to inspecting a possible leak in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. So going back: if the origin of Covid-19 was a lab accident, GoF, or in between, this would change the narrative of the whole pandemic, and so the measures that should be taken to prevent another one: like, for instance, keeping crackpot scientists far away from deadly viruses. Am I wrong?

You are not wrong.

Thank you for your attention, Dr. Ebright.

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Comments 11
  • I have a rare lung condition identical to what is called critical Covid19.
    4 years ago I found a cure after convincing doctors the cause was a synthetic estrogen DES. Doctors aren’t taught about what happened nor taught about damages. In the early 1970s DES was banned for pregnancy. After a little Public concern in the 1970s, no real DES research was done because the NIH (with Fauci) cut off money. Why? Mary Lasker is the patron fundraising saint of the NIH. She took funding for research and turned it into an art or a con depending on your perspective.
    With Mary Lasker’s influence, Congress opened up its purse to billions of research money on new drugs. Nothing was allocated to DES. Why, when 8-12 million out of 98 million births used DES at some point in gestation? Because DES was Mary and husband Albert’s first push into public health in 1938 with the Negro project, a program to introduce birth control to Southern “Negroes”. Negro had a broader definition back then to mean non WASP. So E.European immigrants were also first targeted with the higher doses that had never been tested on humans. The program expanded thru WW2 as cycle control, then after more genital checks told doctors DES was just like estradiol, American Progressives took DES in 1947 to start the women’s programs for WHO..

  • Chatham House past event:
    https://www.chathamhouse.org/events/all/members-event/sustaining-response-inside-who-china-mission

    Recording may be of interest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMllEF58944&t=19s

    Speakers:
    – Dr Peter Daszak, President, EcoHealth Alliance
    – Professor Marion PG Koopmans, DVM PhD, Head department of Viroscience, University Medical Center Rotterdam
    – Professor John Watson, Senior Medical Adviser, Health Protection and Medical Directorate, Public Health England
    – Professor David Heymann CBE, Distinguished Fellow, Global Health Programme, Chatham House; Executive Director, Communicable Diseases Cluster, World Health Organization (1998-03)

    Chair:
    Emma Ross, Senior Research Fellow, Global Health Programme, Chatham House

    At the beginning of this year, a team of experts appointed by the World Health Organization (WHO) completed a 28-day mission to the Chinese city of Wuhan to investigate the origins of the virus that caused the global COVID-19 pandemic.

    Emma Ross and Professor David Heymann host Professor Marion Koopmans Professor John Watson, from the mission, to discuss their findings. Did the team learn anything from this trip that they didn’t know before? To what extent has our understanding of how to prevent pandemics progressed? And what further research is required at this point?

    Chatham House: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chatham_House

  • The interpretations of any science should be based on a firm scientific basis, not on conclusions stated by scientists and health policy people with their feet firmly planted in mid-air. Given the unknowns here, including the location of the horseshoe bat viral RNA, either in the bat or in the institute, it seems that a full investigation is warranted if the scientists involved with potential pandemic pathogens and/or the health policy people do not want to appear to be intellectually lazy. (Imagine in the parents telling their kids, an intellectually lazy kid like you should grown up to be a scientist). Thanks for writing this story.

  • An unidentified virus killed a dozen or so residents of a nursing home in the Washington, DC area in July 2019 and a week or so later the CDC closed down the US army biolab at Ft. Detrick, Maryland for safety violations. Shouldn’t the USAMRIID lab be investigated by the WHO? (See https://kiaskblog.wordpress.com/2020/05/04/the-virus-of-nationalism/)

  • Dr. Daszak is a dangerous quack and con man that needs to be shut down. Now! How can anyone take his “research” into future pandemics seriously? By his own admission we know about 0.03% (!!!) of viruses that can potentially develop into pandemic-causing pathogens. On this observation alone, how can anyone with a brain in the head advocate dangerous gof experiments on the tiny sample of known viruses that are visible to us and claim to be able to predict which virus in the whole population we need to be ready for to hit us next?

  • The second, third, fourth and fifth entries of the SARS virus into human populations occurred as a laboratory accident in Singapore in 2003, a laboratory accident in Taipei in 2003, and two separate laboratory accidents in Beijing in 2004.

    COMMENT: In the opinion of key virologists, the Russian swine flu epidemic in 1977-78 most likely was the result of a GoF lab experiment that leaked from a research facility in the USSR

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4542197/

  • Dr. Ebright says that: ‘Understanding the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is not crucial for responding to the present pandemic.’ But I have a question, which is probably very wide off the mark:
    Let’s take as a working hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 is in fact the result of GoF and that this accounts for how well-adapted it was to human hosts from the presumed start of the pandemic (see Pretrovsky). Could this GoF origin have given an erroneous idea of the mutation rate of the virus which in turn made it seem that it was possible to eradicate it with mass vaccination campaigns, when in fact this could turn out to be a very bad strategy if the virus starts rapidly mutating into new strains when it encounters more varied environments?
    Could an unacknowledged GoF origin have messed up the modelling and projections of the virus behaviour and set us down the wrong road in how we deal with it?
    As I’m writing this, news are accumulating of new variants with may be able to evade the current vaccines, as well as news of significant groups of people testing positive for the virus after vaccination:
    https://science.thewire.in/health/lucknow-40-docs-test-positive-for-covid-after-taking-vaccines/
    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/michigan-covid-test-positive-vaccinated-b1827393.html

    • It’s a good question. The most common view is that the virus mutated very slowly (surprisingly so) at the beginning and what you suggest may have applied then but this was before any modeling got going. However, after the first few months a lot of variables are present that make modeling very difficult anyway. Most models seem to have failed to give very useful predictions and it is hard to see that a possible GOF origin might have contributed. Btw those reports are very preliminary. Thanks.

  • Thanks for your reply, Jonathan. I hope there is nothing to it, but I have a (bad) feeling we are going to hear a lot more about breakthrough infections in the coming months:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/04/09/do-people-get-covid-after-being-vaccinated/
    https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-mystery-of-breakthrough-covid-19-infections
    It is my, admittedly limited, understanding that all vaccines chose to use only the spike protein to minimise the risk of ADE (which had been observed in previous attempts to develop a SARS-CoV vaccine), but isn’t the flipside of this that vaccine evasion becomes much more likely? Is it not urgently fundamental to answer the question of whether the spike sampled in early 2020 was a spike which was close to its maximum capacity for infectivity after months or years infecting human hosts in unreported outbreaks, or whether it was a spike that was just coming into contact with a varied natural environment which is likely to drive its evolution in many unpredictable directions – including the narrow path that allows the spike to achieve vaccine evasion while retaining or increasing its effectiveness?
    All the more so when the governments of the world seem to be bent on vaccinating people under 30 who are at almost 0 risk from COVID-19, and immunize then against the spike protein only, rather than allow them to become immune to the entire virus by becoming infected naturally. Achieving herd immunity against a spike protein is not necessarily the same as achieving herd immunity against the virus. I hope this does not turn into a global Red Queen experiment which we come to regret as a species.

  • And so the entirely predictable is happening:

    “An Israeli study awaiting peer review but posted online last week indicated that the South African variant (B.1.351) could pose an elevated risk of breakthrough infection in people given the Pfizer vaccine. Researchers found the variant in a much higher proportion of breakthrough infections in people who had been vaccinated than in infections among the unvaccinated.”
    https://www.bmj.com/content/373/bmj.n1000

    Now we just wait and see whether this B.1.351 floating about in a vaccinated population vaccinated fizzles out or becomes a new vaccine-resistant ‘Israeli variant’, and breakthrough infections begin to climb up.

    Don’t start an arms race with a virus unless you are 110% sure you can win.

  • At the risk of misusing this comments thread, I think it is worth posting this here:
    “”Even if the South African variant does break through the vaccine’s protection, it has not spread widely through the population,” said Stern, adding that the British variant may be “blocking” the spread of the South African strain.”
    https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/south-african-variant-may-break-through-pfizer-vaccine-protection-vaccine-highly-2021-04-18/
    And that seems to me to be the unacknowledged danger: as the population reaches herd immunity against the dominant variant, other variants which are more resistant to the vaccine may have the room to spread and achieve further vaccine resistance – and possibly more virulence or even the risk of ADE, particularly when the vaccinated population has no epitopes other than of the S protein?

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