By Theodore Shoebat
While there has been lots of talk about how coronavirus somehow seeped out of a lab in China, we should also be mindful that the United States is harboring a virus — a genetically engineered stand of H5N1 — that has a death rate of roughly 60% and, if it gets out, could kill over a billion people. The virus was engineered by two scientists, Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, and their work is backed by the United States government.
There is currently lots of talk of the possibility of covid-19 leaking out of a lab in Wuhan, China. And recently, the Washington Post put out a report about how the US embassy in Beijing, back in 2018, sent a cable to Washington warning about how “the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.” The Chinese scientists, led by Shi Zhengli, were researching coronavirus supposedly for the purpose of preventing the next SARS-like pandemic. But this did not mean that their research was not a safety hazard. According to Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley:
“The cable tells us that there have long been concerns about the possibility of the threat to public health that came from this lab’s research, if it was not being adequately conducted and protected”
The researchers in Wuhan were receiving assistance from the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and other U.S. organizations, but the Chinese were asking for additional help from the US. This help was not given even though it was asked for by the US embassy in its cables to Washington. The cables warned of the safety risks from the research on coronavirus. “The cable was a warning shot,” one U.S. official said. “They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.”
There are officials within the Trump administration who are suggesting that the cables are evidence that covid-19 leaked out of the Wuhan lab. As one administration official said: “The idea that it was just a totally natural occurrence is circumstantial. The evidence it leaked from the lab is circumstantial. Right now, the ledger on the side of it leaking from the lab is packed with bullet points and there’s almost nothing on the other side”.
The research on coronavirus by the Wuhan scientists was risky and called into question whether or not it was even necessary to dabble with such destructive viruses. In fact, in October, 2014, the US government imposed a moratorium on funding for any research that makes a virus more deadly or contagious, known as “gain-of-function” experiments. The US government put a moratorium in 2012 on another research project on a strain of H5N1 virus far more dangerous than the coronavirus from Wuhan.
On January 20th, 2012, thirty-nine leading specialists on the H5N1 virus signed a letter announcing a moratorium on a experiment that would make a highly contagious strand of H5N1. H5N1 is known to mainly infect poultry and rarely humans. But, when it does infect humans it has a very high death rate (60%) while being very low in contagiousness. Therefore, virologist have feared for years about the presence of an H5N1 virus that is very contagious since it would be so deadly and so devastating to humanity.
The moratorium was initially suppose to last for just 60 days, but researchers had it continued. And then, in late 2012, many of the researchers who supported the moratorium then began pushing for its end. Safety guidelines were established and the research was considered to be no longer a major risk. In December of 2012, after a 2-day international conference on the issue hosted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, key researchers and government officials said that they expected the moratorium to end soon . The moratorium ended in January of 2013.
But, on October 17th of 2014, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that it was commencing a moratorium on such virus projects in order to do a detailed review into so-called gain-of-function research. The moratorium was done on research “that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route”. The National Institute of Health’s director, Francis Collins, while stating that such projects are beneficial for better understanding pathogens, pointed out that they “entail biosafety and biosecurity risks, which need to be understood better.”
The fear of these lab viruses leaking out or actually infecting people is very justifiable. The second moratorium was announced after as many as 75 scientists at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were exposed to anthrax. Also in 2014, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) employees found 16 forgotten vials of smallpox in storage. The chance of viruses leaking out of labs is actually quite possible since it has happened numerous times. According to government statistics, between 2004 and 2010 there were more than 700 incidents of either the loss or release of “select agents and toxins” from U.S. labs, and in eleven situations lab workers contracted bacterial or fungal infections. Interestingly, in November of 2014, the US government released new regulations for dual-use research, but omitted regulations for gain-of-function research.
In February of 2019, the the US government approved of the research on the H5N1 influenza virus, thus lifting the suspension that had lasted for four years. Even before the lifting of the suspension, the National Institute of Health already began funding the H5N1 project in January of 2019. The approval was done after the government reviewed the research, but this review was not presented to the public. Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard University epidemiologist, criticized the government for not allowing the review for public eyes, stating:
“After a deliberative process that cost $1 million for [a consultant’s] external study and consumed countless weeks and months of time for many scientists, we are now being asked to trust a completely opaque process where the outcome is to permit the continuation of dangerous experiments”
Now, lets talk about the researchers of this virus project. It has been led by two scientists: Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the University of Tokyo. What Fouchier’s team did was facilitate the adaptation of H5N1so that it could be highly contagious. “They put the mutated H5N1 into the nose of one ferret,” writes Katherine Harmon for Scientific American, “then took a sample of nasal fluid from that ferret and put it in the nose of another. After 10 ferrets, the virus began spreading from ferret to ferret via the air just about as easily as a seasonal flu virus.”
Being moved from ferret to ferret, the virus gained five new genetic substitutions and was able to go airborne. The tenth set of ferrets got infected with an H5N1 strain that was able to spread to ferrets in separate cages without sneezes – and it killed them.
That this strain of H5N1 got these new mutations was, in the words of Fouchier, “very bad news … indeed”. Fouchier declined to detail the exact locations of these mutations but said that they “suggest that as few as five are required to make the virus airborne”.
All of the mutations necessary to make the virus go airborne have already been found in nature, but for these mutations to be found in a single virus has not been found, “just yet,” Fouchier added. In 2011, while in his Rotterdam office, Fouchier affirmed that his team created, in his words, “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make”. Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist who heavily reviewed Fouchier’s virus, said: “I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one … I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”
This project to create a Frankenstein of a virus is so dangerous that Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, warned that “This work should never have been done”. Fouchier’s virus is far worse than normal H5N1 which has a high death rate but a low rate of contagiousness. This lab engineered virus has both a high death rate and high contagiousness. “The virus is transmitted as efficiently as seasonal flu,” said Fouchier. Peter Doherty, a 1996 Nobel prizewinner for work in viral immunology, stated that Fouchier’s work “shows clearly that H5 can change in a way that allows transmission and still cause severe disease in humans. It’s scary”.
Just to give you some perspective, there was an outbreak of H5N1 in 2004 in which 565 people are known to have gotten infected with it. Of this number, 331 died.
The H5N1 infects poultry and does not spread significantly amongst humans, but when it does it has a killing rate of 50-60% which is astronomically worse than the 1918 strand of H1N1 which had a death rate of between 10-20%. In the words of Fouchier: “This is a very dangerous virus … Should these experiments be done? …yes. …It’s important that we keep working with these viruses”. He believes that the research can effectively “send out the message that H5N1 could become airborne”. But, is the science worth the risk? In the words of Lipsitch: “Is the science so compelling and so important to do that it justifies this kind of risk? … The answer is no.”
In 2014, Lipsitchand Tom Inglesby of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, did a study in order to demonstrate the dangers of such research and presented the chances of a viral outbreak happening due to a virus leaking out of a lab. Their study showed that with each year of experimenting with the hybrid flue there is a 0.01% to 0.1% chance that there will be a pandemic. A low number, yes. But, what would happen if Fouchier’s and Kawaoka’s virus — or something like it — got out? In the words of Bryan Walsh, who studies pandemics:
“While it’s impossible to know what the fatality rate would be in a hybrid flu pandemic, let’s assume that the modified H5N1, like its wild cousin, would kill 3 out of every 5 people sickened. If about one-third of the global population were infected by the new, far more transmissible virus—not unreasonable, since no one would have immunity—the result could be a death toll as high as 1.4 billion people.”
So, while it is possible that coronavirus did leak out of a lab in Wuhan, we should be mindful of the fact that the US is harboring a virus far more dangerous than covid-19, and thus we have to at least be prepared for a situation in which such a virus ever became a pandemic.