FACT CHECK: NIH Official Claims Viruses Studied At Chinese Lab Not Genetically Similar To SARS-COV-2

Elias Atienza | Senior Reporter

The New York Times published an article quoting National Institute for Health (NIH) acting director Lawrence A. Tabak stating NIH funded viruses studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China are not genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2.

Verdict: Misleading

While the NIH maintains that the viruses studied by EcoHealth Alliance are not genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2, critics and scientists dispute this.

Fact Check:

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has sparked heated debate about where it originated from. While many scientists favor the “natural” origin, which contends that the virus originated from an animal and spilled over to humans, others contend that the virus originated from a lab in China before leaking to the wider world, known as the “lab leak” theory, according to Bloomberg.

Before the pandemic, EcoHealth Alliance studied bat coronaviruses at the WIV partially funded by a grant from the NIH, according to The Intercept. Some Republicans have claimed that this research may be connected to the origin of SARS-CoV-2, The New York Times article reported.

Tabak said during the hearing that viruses studied at the WIV “bear no relationship to SARS-CoV-2; they are genetically distinct.” He added that “it would be equivalent to saying that a human is equivalent to a cow.” His full remarks can be viewed here, starting at 2 hours and 48 minutes.

This claim, however, has been challenged by critics and other scientists.

Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and biology at Rutgers University, told Check Your Fact in an email that Tabak’s statement was “incorrect.”

“Tabak’s statement is incorrect.  The NIH has no information on identities and sequences of the SARS-like viruses constructed by EcoHealth Alliance and its Wuhan partners subsequent to their 2018 grant progress report and their 2018 grant renewal proposal,” Ebright said. “Therefore the NIH cannot rule out the possibility that EcoHealth Alliance and its Wuhan partners created SARS-CoV-2 or a proximal progenitor, and cannot even rule out the possibility that EcoHealth and its Wuhan partners used NIH funding to create SARS-CoV-2 or a proximal progenitor.”

Emily Kopp, an investigative reporter at U.S. Right To Know looking into the origins of COVID-19, stated on Twitter that the NYT article was “missing critical context.” Kopp pointed to a U.S. Health and Humans Service Office of the Inspector General report that found “deficiencies in complying with those procedures limited NIH and EcoHealth’s ability to effectively monitor Federal grant awards and subawards to understand the nature of the research conducted, identify potential problem areas, and take corrective action.”

“We identified several other deficiencies in the oversight of the awards. Some of these deficiencies include: NIH’s improper termination of a grant; EcoHealth’s inability to obtain scientific documentation from WIV; and EcoHealth’s improper use of grant funds, resulting in $89,171 in unallowable costs,” the OIG report found.

Koppe also pointed to the grant award EcoHealth Alliance received, writing that “EcoHealth and Wuhan Institute of Virology were looking for viruses that would have resembled SARS-CoV-2.

“EcoHealth and the Wuhan Institute of Virology were looking for viruses that would have resembled SARS-CoV-2. Their grant proposal shows they were looking for viruses with a spike protein 10-25% different than SARS. Sound familiar?” Kopp tweeted.

Alina Chan, a post doctoral fellow at the Broad Institute, told Check Your Fact in an email that the claim was “technically accurate but is missing key context” because the NIH does not know all the viruses studied at the WIV.

“This statement by Dr Tabak is technically accurate but is missing key context that the NIH does not know all the viruses being studied in the Wuhan lab that received NIH funding. They only received annual progress reports on some of the viruses studied in that lab,” Chan explained.

She expanded,”A more accurate statement(s) would be: NIH does not know whether the Wuhan lab that received NIH funding was working with the precursor to the pandemic virus. The viruses that they do know about from publications and progress reports by the Wuhan lab and EcoHealth Alliance are not a match to the pandemic virus. However, the NIH is not able to access the Wuhan lab’s database of viruses so they cannot verify whether or not the pandemic virus had been studied in the Wuhan lab prior to the detected outbreak in December 2019.”

The NIH published an October 2021 analysis about whether or not bat coronavirus research it helped fund with grants was genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2. The analysis found that “viruses studied under the EcoHealth Alliance grant are very far distant from SARS-CoV-2.”

“The above figure shows the sequence relationships between SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2 and the naturally occurring bat coronaviruses used in experiments under the NIH grant to EcoHealth Alliance and reported in the scientific literature (ref) or annual progress reports. From this analysis, it is evident that the viruses studied under the EcoHealth Alliance grant are very far distant from SARS-CoV-2,” reads the analysis.

The minority staff of the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) published a 35 page interim report in October 2022 that contended that the virus likely originated from the WIV. It also found that “SARS-CoV-2 shares many of the traits” that researchers at EcoHealth Alliance were “interested in finding in SARS-related coronaviruses.”

“The EcoHealth Alliance NIH grants and DARPA grant proposals, in partnership with the WIV, sought to collect and conduct genetic recombination experiments on SARS-related coronaviruses with specific traits that made those viruses a “high-risk” for zoonotic spillover into animals and humans. SARS-CoV-2 shares many of the traits these researchers were interested in finding in SARS-related coronaviruses or interested in engineering such traits if they were not found naturally,” the report found.

Furthermore, the WIV’s genome database was not available until June 2021, when it reappeared, according to The New York Times. In an August 2021 paper published in the Oxford Journals Molecular Biology and Evolution, Jesse Bloom, a virologist with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, wrote “genomic epidemiology has also proven frustratingly inconclusive” and that only a  “handful of Wuhan sequences are available from before late January of 2020.”

Check Your Fact reached out to NIH and The New York Times for comment and will update this article if responses are provided.

Elias Atienza

Senior Reporter
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