Paper critical of ‘lab leak theory’ mirrored controversial virologist’s insights into gain-of-function

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Ron Fouchier (far left) sparked controversy over gain-of-function research in 2012 after generating an airborne strain of a 60% deadly bird flu. He played an important but largely unnoticed role in persuading the public that SARS-CoV-2 could not be linked to similar research. (Photo credit: Chris Condayan)

The virologist behind the most notorious laboratory product viruses in history played an undisclosed role in persuading the world that the COVID-19 pandemic did not emerge from similar research, according to multiple sources.

The new revelations concern a correspondence in natural medicine called “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2which argued that the novel coronavirus was unlikely to have emerged from research.

Although the letter was published online in March 2020, its legacy lives on. It has been cited by thousands of news articles and Wikipedia pages stating that the lab leak theory – the theory that COVID-19 emerged from a research-related incident in a coronavirus lab at the epicenter of the pandemic – is false and a conspiracy theory. The letter had the greatest impact of any article published on medical science in 2020, the year the COVID-19 pandemic erupted across the globe, according to Altmetric.

The high-impact work brought prestige to the authors, and they continue to publish articles supporting the theory that SARS-CoV-2 arose naturally in wildlife and act as trusted messengers on the origins of the pandemic in the media.

But a distinct trio of virologists had a secret influence on the historically popular journal. These include a virologist whose name is synonymous with risky research and his boss, according to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and statements by the authors.

The article’s esteemed authors have taken up the central ideas of a controversial uncredited gain-of-function practitioner, obscuring his role and influence.

The episode is just the latest development questioning the credibility of of them editions in prestigious journals that marginalized the lab leak theory as a conspiracy theory very early in the pandemic, before much data had emerged. For many virologists and journalists, the label “conspiracy theory” stuckeven as new information has emerged about the perpetrators hidden concerns on viral engineering and scientific collaborations in Wuhan.

Now, emails and interviews make it clear that perhaps the most controversial virologist in history played a behind-the-scenes role in persuading the world that SARS-CoV-2 was not engineered.

Marion Koopmans, head of virology at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, and Ron Fouchier, his deputy, were key to some of his central arguments. Christian Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology at Charité Hospital in Berlin, also argued that SARS-CoV-2 could not have been made.

A review of their scientific publications shows that they have more extensive experience working with coronaviruses in the laboratory than the virologists publicly recognized as co-authors of the paper.

But Koopmans and Fouchier also had competing interests.

Erasmus Medical Center partners with EcoHealth Alliancea virus-hunting project that worked closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a laboratory at the epicenter of the pandemic.

Fouchier’s involvement in particular might have caused a stir had it been apparent when the article first appeared online in March 2020.

In 2011, Fouchier gained worldwide notoriety when he generated an airborne strain of bird flu with an estimated 60% mortality rate. The experiment demonstrated that a few mutations could trigger airborne transmission in humans, according to Fouchier’s institution.

The New York Times editorial board judged him “a designed apocalyptic day.”

Some scientists have expressed concerns about lab accidents and rogue copycats, and said the experiment risks triggering an apocalyptic pandemic. Virologists concerned about the fallout have warned that censorship of the project could hamper scientific progress.

Fouchier has been criticized for changing statements on the risk and underestimating the risk of accident.

The Fouchier experiment was one of the most infamous controversies in virology – right down to the origins of the COVID-19 debate.

But Fouchier’s hidden influence on the debate over a possible laboratory origin of COVID-19 via the natural medicine paper remained unknown for over a year and was largely ignored.

David Fisman, a University of Toronto epidemiologist who criticizes the riskiest gain-of-function research, said the name “Fouchier” has been “synonymous with irresponsible lab science” to him since flu experiments avian made headlines ten years ago.

“I think it would have thrilled my senses if Fouchier had been a listed author, knowing his past work and his apparent inability to consider the ethical dimensions of risky research,” he continued. “As for the concealment of Fouchier’s contribution: this is also concerning, and I think it is part of a larger pattern of non-transparency and even subterfuge.”

Uncredited virologists were allegedly so central to the article that rumors circulated in the scientific community that the article was initially dismissed by Nature — a more prestigious and impactful journal — due to plagiarized ideas, new email released as part of a FOIA trial suggests.

Nature declined to comment.

“For reasons of confidentiality, we cannot discuss the details of the review process for any manuscript which may or may not have been submitted to Naturesaid Michael Stacey, spokesperson for the newspaper.

Alina Chan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute who criticized the paper, called for the disclosure of Fouchier’s contributions, along with others more obvious conflicts of interest.

“The proximal origin letter still fails to acknowledge that one of its authors collaborated with scientists in Wuhan to study new SARS-like viruses and that the letter received input from gain-of-function advocates and donors funds from the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Chan said. in a Tweeter.

The hidden contributions of Fouchier, Koopmans and Drosten have now been confirmed by several participants and are supported by further emails.

Now the paper is Genesis is well known: in late January and early February, Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar, concerned about the spread of the nascent pandemic from Wuhan coronavirus labs, hosted a private teleconference with top virologists and leaders from the National Institutes of Health , including Anthony Fauci.

Scripps Research virologist Kristian Andersen and University of Sydney virologist Edward Holmes told the group of their concerns that SARS-CoV-2 carried engineered markers, but met resistance from other scientists during the call.

“There was derision on the phone line,” Farrar recounted in his memory.

Fouchier, Koopmans and Drosten “couldn’t accept the fact that this could be a lab escape, for good reason: if someone made a coronavirus, they wouldn’t use a bat virus random,” he wrote.

This account was corroborated by Holmes in a recent podcast interview.

Farrar had invited “mostly people who know something about coronavirus, which really isn’t me,” Holmes said.

“People like Ron [Fouchier] very correctly pointed out… you would use standard lab training and this is not standard lab training,” Holmes continued. “And they gave a whole bunch of very compelling points about what you would do if you had to do that.”

A Separate email then-National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins says the debate may have gotten ugly.

Collins wrote shortly after the teleconference that the arguments against a laboratory origin were presented by Fouchier and Drosten “with more force than necessary”.

Koopmans, Drosten, Fouchier, Andersen and Holmes did not respond to emailed questions.

The argument that the Wuhan Institute of Virology only worked with published and well-known viruses in the lab has been undermined by new information about the extent of the ongoing coronavirus hunt and the interest from the laboratory to work with reverse genetics on unknown viruses.

Richard Ebright, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University and lab director at the university’s Waksman Institute for Microbiology, said it could be difficult for virologists who have championed the relatively limitless research on the a gain of function in the debate over Fouchier’s work ten years ago. to consider the possibility that COVID-19 may have resulted from a laboratory accident.

“For people who had argued forcefully that the probability that a GOF research-related accident could cause a pandemic is almost nil on the time scale of five to ten decades, it is difficult to recognize the possibility that a research-related accident GOF accident may have caused a pandemic already in this decade,” Ebright said. “For people who make a living doing research on GOF — especially those who were involved in the specific GOF research project that may have caused the pandemic — it’s even more difficult.”

Ebright also criticized government officials who have funded gain-of-function work over the years, including outgoing National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci. Fauci has has encouraged gain-of-function research as longtime director of the NIH’s institute of infectious diseases and has funded work on coronaviruses done in conjunction with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Part of it funding has been found be improper with NIH’s own policies.

“And, for public officials who, through negligence or faulty execution, violated federal policies to fund GOF research without the risk-benefit review mandated by federal policies — especially those who violated federal policies to fund the specific GOF research project that may have caused the pandemic — that’s even harder,” Ebright concluded.

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