China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, where the COVID-19 pandemic may have started, conducted work on a deadlier virus with a 60% lethality, according to recent Senate testimony.
Steven Quay, a medical doctor, told the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on emerging threats that the Wuhan institute carried out synthetic biology research on the Nipah virus genome in December 2019, around the time the first Covid cases surfaced in Wuhan. Scientists are divided over whether the coronavirus emerged naturally through animals or can be traced to a leak or accident at the Wuhan facility.
“The Nipah virus was in an infectious clone format,” Mr. Quay testified. “Nipah is a BSL-4 level pathogen, and a CDC-designated bioterrorism agent. This is the most dangerous gain-of-function research I have ever encountered. We should assume this research continues to this day at the WIV.”
If confirmed, China’s research on Nipah could violate the Biological Weapon Convention, which China has signed, that prohibits work on agents that can be used as bioweapons.
Nipah is smaller in size than the virus behind Covid, known as SARS-COV-2, and is less transmissible.
“But it is one of the deadliest viruses, with a 60% lethality,” said Dr. Quay, chief executive officer of Atossa Therapeutics, a Seattle-based pharmaceutical company.
“This is 60 times deadlier than SARS2,” he said, using the shortened term for the virus behind COVID-19. “The lab where the human specimens were processed is not the highest level biosafety lab, BSL-4, but was in the BSL-2 or -3 facility.”
Dr. Quay said he does not know why Chinese researchers were working on the Nipah virus.
“But a laboratory-acquired infection with a modified Nipah virus would make the COVID-19 pandemic look like a walk in the park,” he said.
Unlike COVID, Nipah is unable to spread in the air. But if the research involved producing an aerosolized version of the virus, the danger of a deadlier pandemic is possible, Dr. Quay testified.
A Black Plague parallel?
In an interview, Dr. Quay said he discovered the Wuhan research on Nipah in Chinese research data mistakenly posted on GenBank, a U.S.-based repository for DNA-sequencing information. Mr. Quay said the danger in China’s work on Nipah is that it could become aerosolized and cause mass death.
“The Black Plague in Europe was a 20% lethal event and it set society back 250 years,” he said, adding that a Nipah pandemic would “set us back over a millennium in my estimate.”
Spokesmen for the State Department, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), National Institutes of Health and the Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
According to the CDC website, Nipah was first discovered in 1999 during a natural outbreak in Malaysia and Singapore. It spreads through bodily fluids and symptoms include fever, headache, nausea and vomiting and shortness of breath. Severe symptoms can leave the victim confused or in a coma. “Death can occur in as many as 80% of cases,” the center said on its website.
The CDC lists Nipah as an emerging pathogen and “bioterrorism agent” that “could be engineered for mass dissemination in the future,” based on availability, ease of production and dissemination and high mortality rate.
The State Department’s latest annual report on arms compliance states that China “continued to engage in activities with dual-use applications, which raise concerns regarding its compliance with Article I of the [Biological Weapons Convention].” That article deals with work on bioweapons. China’s government for the past two years canceled meetings with U.S. officials to discuss American BWC compliance concerns.
The State Department, in a fact sheet released in the last days of the Trump administration, said U.S. intelligence has concluded that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has engaged in secret military work.
“Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military,” the report said, noting classified research and laboratory animal experiments for the People’s Liberation Army since at least 2017.
The disclosure about Chinese research on Nipah was made last Wednesday during a Senate hearing on so-called gain-of-function research, including China’s work at the Wuhan institute in making bat viruses more transmissible to humans in order to study their properties.
Dr. Quay and two other experts, Richard H. Ebright, director of the Rutgers University Waksman Institute of Microbiology, and Kevin M. Esvelt, a biochemist at MIT, warned that unregulated gain-of-function research poses threats for future pandemics.
Dr. Ebright said all research involving making viruses more infectious should be halted.
“Gain-of-function research of concern can advance scientific understanding, but gain-of-function research of concern has no civilian practical applications,” he said. “In particular, gain-of-function research of concern is not needed for and does not contribute to the development of vaccines and drugs.”
Dr. Esvelt said U.S. AID and the National Institutes of Health both funded research to find or create novel pandemic-capable viruses in laboratories around the world. Both agencies hope to prevent natural pandemics but “seek to identify viruses that could kill as many people as a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Well-meaning health experts “never considered that these advances in technology, which are continuing, plus a list of pandemic-capable viruses, would allow a single skilled terrorist to unleash more pandemics at once than would naturally occur in a century,” Dr. Esvelt said.
The hunt for origins
Sen. Rand Paul, who co-chaired the hearing, said the hearing sought answers to the origin of the Covid pandemic in Wuhan beginning in December 2019.
“I maintain that the techniques that the [National Institute of Health] funded in Wuhan to create enhanced pathogens may have or could have been used to create COVID-19,” the Kentucky Republican said.
It was the first hearing by Congress on gain-of-function research, a possible source for the pandemic, the Kentucky Republican said. A second theory is that the virus jumped from a wild animal to a human at a Wuhan market. U.S. intelligence agencies say they cannot conclusively prove either theory.
Dr. Quay said there is no dispositive evidence the pandemic began as a spillover of a natural virus in a market.
“All evidence is consistent with a laboratory-acquired infection,” he said.
Two scientific studies published last month argued that the virus began as a “spillover” event from Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market where wild animals were sold for eating.
The COVID virus “has features consistent with synthetic biology gain-of-function research,” Dr. Quay said, citing specifically two features of the virus that affect its ability to bind to human cells. Lab-leak proponents also argue that, in the early months of the pandemic, no animal was found to be infected with COVID-19 anywhere, including the Wuhan market.
Features of the evolving COVID virus “places the first human infection in the fall of 2019, long before the December market cases,” he said. “The American people deserve to know how this pandemic started and to know if the NIH funded research that may have caused this pandemic.”
China’s government so far has refused to cooperate in investigating the origin of the pandemic.
During the hearing, it was disclosed that in September 2019, three months before the disease outbreak was declared, the Wuhan Institute of Virology removed a website that listed 21,000 viruses.