US officials may have avoided the coronavirus lab-leak theory to avoid associations with controversial gain-of-function research

wuhan institute of virology
Guards stand outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology on February 3, 2021.

Is the best way to protect people from a dangerous virus to create one in a lab? That’s the central question in the debate over gain-of-function research, a branch of virology that alters viruses in a controlled environment to make them more transmissible or infectious.

Proponents of this type of research say the work enables them to predict deadly pathogens that might emerge in real life and start work on vaccines or treatments ahead. But opponents think the experiments are simply too risky. A lab without proper safety protocol could accidentally release a more transmissible virus into the human population.

Competing theories about the coronavirus’ origin have recently thrust this gain-of-function debate into the spotlight, since a prominent lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was conducting that kind of research on coronaviruses. What’s more, the US has funded grants that supported that lab – which might have given State Department officials an incentive not to thoroughly investigate the possibility of a lab leak, according to a recent Vanity Fair investigation.

Vanity Fair reported that at a December 2020 meeting, US State Department officials were “explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to US government funding of it.”

For years, the US government gave grants to a nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance, which in turn funded gain-of-function research – including studies at the Wuhan institute.

In a January internal memo obtained by Vanity Fair, Thomas DiNanno, former acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, wrote that his colleagues had warned leaders within his bureau “not to pursue an investigation into the origin of COVID-19” because it would “open a can of worms.”

Of course, the possibility that US officials may have wanted to distance themselves from any association with gain-of-function work doesn’t necessarily make the lab-leak theory more credible. The leading theory is still that the virus spilled over to people from animals. That’s because around 75% of all new infectious diseases come to us from animals, and the coronavirus’ genetic code is very similar to that of other coronaviruses found in bats.

Still, a growing chorus of political and public-health leaders are calling for more thorough investigations into the coronavirus’ origin, including the possibility that it leaked from a lab.

How the lab-leak theory reentered the conversation

WHO investigation Wuhan
Experts from the joint WHO-China team that investigated the coronavirus’ origin attend a press conference in Wuhan on February 9, 2021.

The lab leak theory gained traction again at the end of March, after World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that “all hypotheses remain on the table” as to the virus’ origin – even after a WHO report concluded that a lab leak was unlikely. In a May letter, a group of biologists wrote that the lab-leak theory should be taken seriously “until we have sufficient data.”

Proponents of this possibility usually point to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), since scientists were studying coronaviruses there before the pandemic.

But at the start of the pandemic, scientists quickly shut down the notion that the WIV could be to blame. A February 2020 statement published by 27 scientists in the journal The Lancet said the scientific community had overwhelmingly concluded that the virus originated in wildlife.

“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the statement read.

However, the organizer of that statement was the president of EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak.

Wuhan lab
A laboratory on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on May 27, 2020.

In May 2014, EcoHealth received a roughly $3.7 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of which went toward gain-of-function experiments. By 2018, EcoHealth was receiving up to $15 million per year in grant money from federal agencies, according to Vanity Fair.

In one instance, EcoHealth Alliance helped fund research that created a new infectious pathogen using the molecular structure of the SARS virus. The aim of the study, according to the researchers, was to warn of the potential risk of a SARS-related virus re-emerging from bats.

One of the paper’s authors was a prominent WIV virologist, Shi Zhengli. NIAID and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are cited as financial supporters of the research.

The Trump administration canceled EcoHealth’s $3.7 million grant in April 2020. Then the NIH reinstated the grant in July but temporarily suspended its research activities.

Both NIAID director Anthony Fauci and NIH Director Francis Collins have said that US agencies never funded gain-of-function research at the WIV.

“I fully agree that you should investigate where the virus came from,” Fauci told Senator Rand Paul at a Senate hearing last month. “But again, we have not funded gain-of-function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. No matter how many times you say it, it didn’t happen.”

He added, though, that it would have been “irresponsible” if the US hadn’t investigated bat viruses that may have caused the SARS outbreak.

“Are you really saying that we are implicated because we gave a multibillion-dollar institution $120,000 a year for bat surveillance?” Fauci told the Financial Times on Friday.

The US has funded gain-of-function research before

Fauci Biden
Anthony Fauci listens as President Joe Biden speaks at the National Institutes of Health.

The US currently decides whether to fund gain-of-function experiments on a case-by-case basis. A multidisciplinary board at the Department of Health and Human Services evaluates the research to determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

The Trump administration implemented that policy in 2017. Before that, the Obama administration had put a moratorium on new funding for gain-of-function experiments that could make influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses more transmissible – or more likely to cause disease – through respiratory droplets in mammals. But that rule, created in October 2014, still made exceptions for research that was “urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security.”

An NIH official told Vanity Fair that the government’s approach to gain-of-function is complicated, though.

“If you ban gain-of-function research, you ban all of virology,” the official said, adding, “Ever since the moratorium, everyone’s gone wink-wink and just done gain-of-function research anyway.”

Aylin Woodward contributed reporting.

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Ex-Treasury official sentenced to 6 months in prison for leaking banking documents related to the Mueller probe

Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, center, leaves court after receiving a six-month prison sentence for leaking confidential financial reports to a journalist at Buzzfeed, Thursday June 3, 2021, in New York.
Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, center, leaves court after receiving a six-month prison sentence for leaking confidential financial reports to a journalist at Buzzfeed, Thursday June 3, 2021, in New York.

  • Former Treasury Department official Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards was sentenced to six months in prison on Thursday.
  • Her sentencing comes more than a year after she pleaded guilty and admitted to leaking confidential documents to Buzzfeed News.
  • The banking files were related to figures tied to Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, including Paul Manafort.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A former Treasury Department official was sentenced to six months in prison on Thursday for leaking tens of thousands of pages of confidential financial documents to Buzzfeed News, the media publication reported.

Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, 42, pleaded guilty last year, admitting she leaked Suspicious Activity Reports related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the US election.

Leaked documents included reports on former President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his associate Rick Gates, the Russian Embassy, and Maria Butina.

Edwards also leaked documents that became part of the FinCEN files, which were covered by a consortium of more than 100 international news organizations. The project exposed potential corruption in the global banking system and led several counties to reform their financial laws.

Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs, are highly confidential documents that banks submit to the Treasury Department when they notice potentially suspect financial activity.

As a senior department official, Edwards had access to those filings and ultimately sent more than 50,000 pages’ worth to BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold. The indictment, which federal prosecutors in Manhattan first brought in 2018, didn’t mention Leopold by name but cited the articles he wrote about the Mueller investigation and FinCEN files.

Edwards pleaded guilty in 2020, though her sentencing was repeatedly delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. At Edwards’s sentencing hearing Thursday, her defense attorney Stephanie Carvlin said Edwards leaked the files as a whistleblower because the Treasury Department wasn’t properly handling them, according to Politico.

In a statement Thursday, BuzzFeed News spokesperson Matt Mittenthal condemned the six-month sentence from US District Court Judge Gregory Woods.

“Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards is a brave whistleblower,” Mittenthal told Politico. “She fought to warn the public about grave risks to America’s national security, first through the official whistleblower process, and then through the press. She did so, despite tremendous personal risk, because she believed she owed it to the country she loves.”

On Twitter, Leopold said the leaks played a valuable public service.

“Natalie Edwards made these disclosures despite tremendous personal risk, because she believed she owed it to the country she loves,” Leopold wrote. “Her disclosures has helped to inspire major financial reform and legal action in the United States, the EU, and countries around the world.”

The sentencing comes at a moment when the Justice Department is under scrutiny for secretly seizing the records of journalists at The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post during Donald Trump’s administration in order to investigate leaks. It’s not clear whether, as part of its investigation, the department obtained phone records from Leopold.

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