A prominent scientist who exposed a congressional probe into gain-of-function research helped fund gain-of-function work from the Wuhan Institute of Virology reported by congressional investigators.
Peter Hotez, dean of the Baylor College of Medicine National School of Tropical Medicine, has been a fierce critic of potential hearings next year on a possible laboratory origin of COVID-19 and whether the National Institutes of Health prematurely discredited the hypothesis.
Hotez decried the hearings as nothing less than a “plan to undermine the fabric of science in America” in a viral tweet thread Last week. Hotez also called the possibility that a lab accident triggered the COVID-19 pandemic a “wild conspiracy.”
However, Hotez’s own NIH grant from 2012 to 2017 for the development of a SARS vaccine had the stated purpose of responding to any “accidental release from a laboratory”, in addition to possible zoonotic spread of the virus.
The $6.1 million NIH grant also raises the possibility of a “deliberate spread of the virus through a bioterrorist attack.”
“Outbreaks of SARS remain a serious concern primarily due to possible zoonotic reintroduction of SARS-CoV into humans, accidental release from a laboratory, or deliberate spread of the virus by bioterrorist attack,” the description reads. of the grant.
It is unclear why Hotez dismissed a possible laboratory release of SARS-CoV-2 as absurd, after conducting research for years to prepare for a possible accidental or deliberate release of SARS-CoV.
Hotez did not respond to emailed questions.
Hotez helped fund research into controversial chimeric coronavirus
While casting concerns about the Wuhan labs as “fringe,” Hotez did not mention his own connection to a project involving a lab-generated chimeric SARS-related coronavirus that has been examined under the microscope of Congress.
The project was led by Zhengli Shi, a senior scientist and “virus hunter” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology nicknamed the “Bat Lady”.
As part of his NIH grant, Hotez has subcontracted funds for research into combined or “chimeric” coronaviruses, a scientific article shows. Chez Hotez to agree signed up two of Shi’s collaborators on the project.
In the paper 2017 co-funded by Hotez, Shi and his colleagues generated a recombinant virus from two SARS-related coronaviruses: “rWIV1-SHC014S”.
It is unclear whether the Hotez co-funded paper should have been stopped under a temporary “pause” on gain-of-function work before 2017. However, some independent biosafety experts have stated that research on this chimeric virus at some respects illustrates gaps in NIH surveillance of risky research in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A preliminary study of one of the coronaviruses that made up the chimera, WIV1, found it “ready for human emergence.” Another one earlier paper on the other coronavirus, SHC014, said his future study of lab-generated viruses might be “too risky to pursue.”
“The work here should have been at least scrutinized,” said David Relman, a Stanford microbiologist and biosafety expert. “This work should have been strongly revised to [gain-of-function]and probably should have been put on hiatus before December 2017.”
Shi’s participation in the joint project was funded in part by EcoHealth Alliance, according to the article. This NIH grant to EcoHealth — “Understanding the risk of emergence of the bat coronavirus” — has been subject to scrutiny for his research on the new coronaviruses manipulated in the laboratories of Wuhan.
Specifically, an ecohealth alliance grant report obtained by congressional investigators demonstrated that a WIV1-SHC014 chimera generated thousands of times the viral load and increased lethality in mice with human airway cells. This has raised concerns among some biosecurity experts, scientists and members of congress.
In response to questions from Congressional Republicans, NIH recognized that the research did not comply with its own regulations on gain-of-function research.
“In this limited experiment, laboratory mice infected with bat coronavirus SHC014 WIV1 became sicker than those infected with bat coronavirus WIV1,” the letter read. “As sometimes happens in science, this was an unexpected result rather than something the scientists intended to do.”
An investigation could shed light on whether the risks of such experiments outweigh the benefits, but Hotez was unclear about this apparent conflict of interest.
“The construction and threat characterization of rWIV1-SHC014 was – unequivocally – gain-of-function research,” said Richard Ebright, Rutgers Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry at Rutgers University. “This is a conflict of interest which, to my knowledge, has not been previously disclosed to The Lancet Commission…and which will surely be of interest to The Lancet Commission.”
The Lancet Commission
Hotez serves on Lancet COVID-19 Commissiona panel of experts working to scrutinize the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Meanwhile, Hotez suggested that the commission’s final reports should not incorporate Sachs’ concerns.
“Whenever I discussed the possibility of SARS-CoV-2 being a lab release, Hotez firmly rejected that possibility, but never explained to me or the Lancet Commission that he actually had a release. subsidy based on this type of risk. He definitely should have been clear on that,” Sachs said.
Sachs said the newspaper 2017 raised questions about whether a potential conflict of interest should have been disclosed to the commission.
“I have repeatedly asked all commissioners to be transparent about potential conflicts of interest,” Sachs added.