Revealed: How scientists who dismissed Wuhan lab theory are linked to Chinese researchers

Wuhan Institute of Virology - Thomas Peter
Wuhan Institute of Virology - Thomas Peter

All but one scientist who penned a letter in The Lancet dismissing the possibility that coronavirus could have come from a lab in Wuhan were linked to its Chinese researchers, their colleagues or funders, a Telegraph investigation can reveal.

The influential journal published a letter on March 7 last year from 27 scientists in which they stated that they “strongly condemned conspiracy theories” surrounding Covid-19.

It effectively shut down scientific debate into whether coronavirus was manipulated or leaked from a lab in Wuhan.

On Friday, researchers who tried to investigate a link but were stonewalled and branded conspiracy theorists called it an “extreme cover-up”.

Despite declaring no conflicts of interest at the time, it has since emerged that the letter was orchestrated by British zoologist Peter Daszak, president of the US-based EcoHealth Alliance, which funded research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where the leak was suspected.

However, The Telegraph can disclose that 26 of the 27 scientists listed in the letter had connections to the Chinese lab, through researchers and funders closely linked to Wuhan.

While Mr Daszak eventually declared his involvement in the EcoHealth Alliance, he failed to mention that five other signatories also worked for the organisation.

A further three of the signatories were from Britain’s Wellcome Trust, which has funded work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the past.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of Sage and the director of the Trust, who signed the letter, has also published work with George Gao, the head of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, whom he describes as an “old friend”.

Oxford-educated Dr Gao is a former Wellcome research assistant, and Mr Daszak has previously claimed Dr Gao had supported his nomination to the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr Gao also has close connections with Shi Zhengli, the scientist known as “batwoman” who was leading research into bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, and whose team discovered a virus in 2013 in a cave in Yunnan which is the closest ever found to Sars-Cov-2.

Another signatory, Prof Linda Saif, of Ohio State University, spoke at a workshop in Wuhan in May 2017 alongside Dr Shi and Dr Gao, organised partly by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Topics discussed at the meeting included the level of security in Chinese labs. Prof Saif’s talk dealt with animal coronaviruses.

Similarly, two other signatories are in the leadership team of the Global Virome Project, of which Mr Daszak is treasurer. Dr Gao helped launch the project and EcoHealth Alliance is a partner.

The Global Virome Project’s goal is to detect and identify at least 99 per cent of potential zoonotic viral threats to human health and food security. It took over from the Predict project, which uncovered more than 1,000 unique viruses in animals and humans.

However, it has since emerged that Predict part-funded controversial work by Wuhan researchers on bat coronaviruses which were altered to see if they could infect humans. The funds came via EcoHealth Alliance.

In an email on Feb 8, released under Freedom of Information requests, Mr Daszak revealed he had composed the letter after being asked by “our collaborators” in China for a “show of support”.

Angus Dalgleish, professor of oncology at St Georges, University of London, and Norwegian scientist Birger Sorensen, who struggled to have work published showing a link between the virus and Wuhan research, said there had been an “extreme cover-up”.

Commenting on the discovery that so many of the signatories were linked to China, they said: “This article is the first to show beyond reasonable doubt that our entire area of virus research has been contaminated politically. We bear the scars to show it.”

Other signatories with links to the Wuhan team include Prof Kanta Subbarao, who spoke at a conference in Wuhan – part organised by the Wuhan Institute of Virology – on emerging disease in 2016, while she was still chief of the NIAID’s Emerging Respiratory Viruses Section.

Dr John Mackenzie, of Curtin University of Technology in Australia, put his name to the letter, but failed to mention he was still listed as a committee member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Five other signatories had all published articles with Prof Ralph Baric, who was collaborating with Shi Zhengli and the Wuhan Institute of Virology on research about genetically manipulating coronaviruses to see if they could be made to infect humans.

Crucially, Prof Baric was omitted from the list of signatures although he was initially asked to join the group by Mr Daszak. Emails have recently come to light between Mr Daszak and Prof Baric ahead of The Lancet letter showing that the pair decided to blur their association in case it looked “self-serving”.

Mr Daszak told Prof Baric he would distribute the letter in a way that “doesn’t link it back to our collaboration so we maximise an independent voice”.

Out of 27 signatories, only Prof Ronald Corley, of Boston University, appears to have no links to funders or researchers.

While an addendum was added to The Lancet letter in June this year, pointing out Mr Daszak’s links to Wuhan, no others revealed any conflict of interest at the time.

Molecular biologist Prof Richard Ebright, of Rutgers University, who has fought to uncover the truth behind the Covid pandemic, said: “For the June addendum, the Lancet invited the 27 authors of the letter to re-evaluate their competing interests.

“Incredibly, only Daszak appears to have done so. Conflicts of interest were not reported for any of the other 26 signers of the letter – not even those with obviously material undisclosed conflicts such as EcoHealth employees and Predict contractors.

“The standard remedy for fraudulent statements in scientific publications is retraction. It is unclear why retraction was not pursued.”

Several of those who signed the letters have since changed their stance, with Prof Peter Palese, of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, now calling for a full inquiry.

Dr Charles Calisher, of Colorado State University, told The Telegraph that the letter never intended to suggest that Covid might not have a natural origin, rather that there was insufficient data.

Signatory Prof Stanley Perlman, of the University of Iowa, told The Telegraph: “It is difficult to eliminate a possible lab leak as part of the process, so this still needs to be considered.”

Prof Bernard Roizman has gone the furthest of all, telling the Wall Street Journal in May that he is now convinced the virus was accidentally released by a “sloppy” scientist.

Mr Daszak was removed from the UN’s Covid commission looking at the origins of the pandemic in June over his scientific impartiality. However he is still part of the World Health Organisation Covid investigation team.

Earlier this month, he co-authored an article in Nature with the WHO team claiming there was still little evidence for a lab leak theory and warning that it may soon be too late to get to the bottom of how the pandemic started.

Prof Dalgleish added: “It may now be too late to get to the bottom of what happened with the pandemic because of this stalling but I think enough evidence is out there. It may be that if they hadn’t been doing this work [a] pandemic might never have happened.”

When approached, the Lancet and Wellcome Trust refused to comment further on the letter. Nobody from EcoHealth Alliance had responded at the time of publication.

CORRECTION:  The Wellcome Trust has asked us to clarify that no funding was provided by the Trust to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.  Funding from the Trust was received by a UK University to support its biomedical research capacity. The results of a study later undertaken at the university were shared with the Wuhan Institute among other international participants.  The university did not seek authorisation from or notify the Wellcome Trust in respect of this collaboration, nor was it required to.  We are happy to clarify this point.