Documents reveal researchers applied for $14m to fund controversial project in 2018
US ‘rejected funding for bat coronavirus project at Wuhan lab’
Tom Whipple, Science EditorWednesday September 22 2021, 12.01am BST, The Times
Plans to genetically engineer coronaviruses and then conduct experiments in live bats at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were rejected by US funding agencies on the grounds that it could have put local communities at risk, according to documents leaked yesterday.
The 2018 application by Ecohealth Alliance, a US non-governmental organisation, involved proposals to work alongside Wuhan researchers to tweak coronaviruses to make them potentially better able to infect humans, the documents claimed.
In describing experiments involving the construction of “chimeric coronaviruses”, as well as the regular sampling of viruses from bat caves, the leaked documents will increase scrutiny on the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the idea that the pandemic may have originated in a laboratory.
The proposals were published by Drastic, an international collaboration of scientists investigating the origins of the pandemic. The Times could not independently verify their veracity, although other scientists said they appeared legitimate. Ecohealth Alliance was approached for comment.
In deciding not to fund the project the documents appear to show that Darpa, the US science agency, expressed concern that engineering the viruses might result in “gain of function”, in which the virus becomes more dangerous.
The project, called “Defuse”, was a plan led by Peter Daszak, a British scientist. Its goal, according to the released documents, was to assess the risk from coronaviruses, and then work on methods to prevent outbreaks. It also included proposals to vaccinate bats against coronavirus.
The work did not go ahead after Darpa rejected the $14 million application, in part due to fears over the possibility of gain of function.
A key element of the Defuse project was to have been testing out the ability to inoculate bats, to reduce the burden of coronavirus, and so decrease the likelihood of it spilling over into humans. Several methods were proposed for this, including using nanoparticle sprays or other viruses to deliver the spike proteins into the bodies of the bats while in caves.
In their assessment of the proposal, Darpa expressed scepticism that this would be likely to work.
The documents were released by Drastic last night. In their accompanying analysis, they said that a key question is whether the research, in particular on introducing “human specific” elements of virus was carried out anyway by Chinese scientists, with different funders.
“Given that we find in this proposal a discussion of the planned introduction of human-specific cleavage sites, a review by the wider scientific community of the plausibility of artificial insertion is warranted,” they said.