China lab suspected of Covid leak stripped of US funding for violating biosafety rules

Wuhan Institute of Virology
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has failed to cooperate with US investigators - Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

The Chinese laboratory suspected of leaking coronavirus has been stripped of United States government funding for 10 years after conducting dangerous experiments that increased the potency of coronaviruses before the pandemic.

The US Department of Human Health and Services (HHS) said it was debarring the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) after documents showed scientists had inserted new spike proteins into four bat coronaviruses.

In the experiments, which occurred between 2018 and 2019, one chimeric virus killed 75 per cent of infected humanised mice within two weeks.

The HHS said that the experiments had increased viral activity more than tenfold, in clear violation of government grant guidelines.

WIV was just eight miles from where the first cases of Covid emerged and had a history of working on gain-of-function experiments – work that increases the potency of viruses. This led many people to suspect that the virus could have leaked.

In the months before the pandemic, the institute had registered patents for repairs to ventilation symptoms and broken seals and is believed to have worked on viruses at inappropriate biosafety levels.

The Chinese authorities have refused to allow a proper investigation and have blocked attempts to access laboratories, research notebooks or sample databases.

The memo said that the US National Institutes of Health had been trying to contact WIV for two years for information about the experiments but had received no response.

The HHS warned that such experiments may still be ongoing and could have had “potential health consequences and repercussions”.

“WIV conducted an experiment that violated the terms of the grant regarding viral activity, which possibly did lead or could lead to health issues or other unacceptable outcomes,” said the notice of debarment.

“WIV has not acknowledged the violations, has not cooperated with the government to address the violations, has not accepted responsibility for the violations, and therefore presumably has taken no action to eliminate the risk to the government in conducting business transactions with WIV presently or into the future.”

It concluded: “There is risk that WIV not only previously violated, but is currently violating, and will continue to violate, protocols of the National Institutes of Health on biosafety.”

No response from ‘bat woman’

The HHS said it had tried to contact WIV by fax and email for further details on the experiments but had received no response.

The department tried to contact Dr Shi Zhengli, the principal investigator known as “bat woman”, and Dr Yanyi Wang, laboratory director-general, but neither replied.

Officials even sent the notice of debarment by DHL Express, asking whether WIV wanted to contest the ruling, but the envelope was returned to sender.

The worrying experiments came to light in a progress report compiled by US-based EcoHealth Alliance, which had subcontracted WIV to carry out laboratory work on bat coronaviruses gathered in south-east Asia.

EcoHealth received NIH funding worth more than $3.7 million (£2.9 million) between 2014 and 2020 for the project, of which more than $600,000 (£490,000) went to the Wuhan laboratory.

At the time of the experiments, the US had recently lifted a three-year ban on science that increased the potency of viruses. However, it stipulated that laboratories that wanted to carry out such work must apply on a case-by-case basis and face a multidisciplinary review board.

Claims experiments were exempt

In earlier correspondence with The Telegraph, Dr Peter Daszak, the British zoologist and president of EcoHealth Alliance, said that its work with WIV did not fall under restricted gain-of-function research.

“None of the work changed animal viruses so they can infect humans – they only infected human cell cultures and that’s a big difference,” said Dr Daszak.

He also said the experiments were exempt because the original viruses were not infectious to humans.

However, White House officials told The Telegraph the work did fall under gain-of-function rules and would have required review.

Gerald Epstein, former assistant director for biosecurity and emerging technologies at the White House Office of Science and Technology Police between 2016 and 2018, said: “I oversaw development of the US government’s enhanced potential pandemic pathogens (ePPP) policy usually referred to as gain-of-function.

“EcoHealth claimed that their work engineering bat coronaviruses could not have been ePPP research because the original viruses were not pathogenic to humans. That is apparently their position, but it is clearly incorrect.”

The HHS said it had given WIV several opportunities to disprove that its work was not dangerous but it had failed to do so.

Debarments usually do not last longer than three years, but the case warranted a longer timeframe, it said.

The Telegraph contacted WIV and EcoHealth Alliance but neither had responded at the time of publication.