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Did EcoHealth create SARS-CoV-2?

by jamal1 min read17th Nov 20217 comments


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Science writer Nicholas Wade does a detailed write up here: https://thebulletin.org/2021/05/the-origin-of-covid-did-people-or-nature-open-pandoras-box-at-wuhan/

I'd like to hear the LessWrong evaluation of these claims.

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There's no reason to create inaccurate headlines on LessWrong. The article doesn't claim that EcoHealth created SARS-CoV-2.

Shi's lab did gain-of-function research under biosafety level 2 as they describe in their own papers like Evolutionary Arms Race between Virus and Host Drives Genetic Diversity in Bat Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-Related Coronavirus Spike Genes. The acknowledgement section of that paper describes that funding as:

"This work was jointly funded by the strategic priority research program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (grant XDB29010101) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grants 31770175 and 31621061) to Z.-L.S."

Nicholas Wade does not assert that EcoHealth funded any of the biosafety level 2 gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Instituate of Virology that likely created the pandemic just that they did fund gain-of-function research done under biosafety level 3 in the lab that did research that likely created the pandemic. 

Reality is complex, avoid trying to dumb down complex claims when discussing on LessWrong. 

Nicholas Wade does assert that! NIAID funded it, EcoHealth was the prime contractor, Dr Shi at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was an official sub-contractor. He has a link to the NIH website.

From June 2014 to May 2019, Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance had a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, to do gain-of-function research with coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

2ChristianKl14dThere's no assertion that this grant directly paid for the experiments from which COVID-19 escaped. The Baric&Shi paper from 2015 which came out of that grant reports work happening under biosafety level III. Biosafety level II doesn't provide effective protection for the researchers when they deal with an airborne virus. Despite the denailist at the WHO SARS-COV-2, seems to spread via airborne infections, so it makes sense that the leak was from one of the experiments under biosafety level II which were not EcoHealth funded.

Probably not, but still a pretty large probability relative to actual safety (I'd guess ~3%? Safety would be something like 0.0001%.).

Basically even if you can give a really convincing argument that sars-cov-2 could have escaped from a lab, you still have to contend with there being lots of zoonotic infections from wild animals each year.

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There are at least two more clues that became public knowledge since this article was written: the EcoHealth grant application obtained by The Intercept, which included proposals to modify spike proteins and cleavage sites in coronaviruses; and similar news that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was studying bat coronaviruses from Laos, home of the closest known natural relatives to SARS-CoV-2. 

Add that the WIV took a crucial viral database offline in September 2019, and it's easy to suppose that they had some lab accident that month, involving Laotian bat virus, and that they took the database offline to hide the evidence. 

Evidently there is some possibility that the virus was modified in spike protein or cleavage sites or both, but I cannot judge the evidence. E.g. maybe the furin cleavage site was CRISPRed into place, or maybe it was produced by a natural recombination

One may also ask whether WIV was modifying its viruses only because EcoHealth suggested it, or whether that would have been taking place anyway. Also, the biodefense/biowarfare departments of the Chinese and American militaries would, I think, be silent partners in all such collaborations. Both China and America would want to know what these viruses can do, and America would want to know what experiments China may be conducting. 

Or, you know, maybe someone in central China was importing frozen food from Laos that happened to contain infected tissues from an unknown intermediate species, and the virus was just on the threshold of mutating to a human-adapted form but hadn't done so in Laos, and it's just a big coincidence that this threshold was finally crossed in the vicinity of the world's main collection of bat viruses... I'm sure more could be done to steelman the theory of a natural origin, but at this point, it does look more like a product of human action. 

You'd be more likely to get a meaningful response if you sold the article a little bit more. E.g. why would we want to read it? Does it seem particularly good to you? Does it draw a specific interesting conclusion that you particularly want to fact-check?

It's a long read, but you can skim it.

Nicholas Wade is a serious science writer and he has smoking gun evidence.

EcoHealth was getting US grants, subcontracted out to Dr Shi at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to insert spike proteins into bat viruses to see what makes them more infectious to humans.

Also, here's another more detailed EcoHealth proposal to DARPA, that discusses Gain of Function Research, making bat viruses more infectious to humans, and proposes subcontracting work out to Dr Shi at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.  The DARPA proposal was rejected, but EcoHealth just got similar proposals funded through NIAID. This is really smoking gun evidence. They did it.