China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, where the COVID-19 pandemic may have started, conducted work on a deadlier virus with a 60% lethality rate, according to recent Senate testimony.
Steven Quay, a medical doctor, told the Senate Homeland Security and 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-19 cases surfaced in Wuhan. Scientists are divided over whether the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 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,” Dr. 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 Weapons Convention, which Beijing has signed, that prohibits work on agents that can be used as bioweapons.
Nipah is smaller than the virus behind COVID-19, 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 SARS-2,” 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 did 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.”
Unlike SARS-CoV-2, Nipah is unable to spread in the air. Still, if the research produced an aerosolized version of the virus, it could cause a deadlier pandemic, Dr. Quay testified.
A Black Death parallel?
In an interview, Dr. Quay said he discovered the Wuhan study 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. A Nipah pandemic would “set us back over a millennium, in my estimate.”
Spokespeople for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Chinese Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
A State Department spokesman said: “We are aware of the Aug. 3 testimony. We have no comment for your story.”
According to the CDC website, Nipah was first discovered in 1999 during a natural outbreak in Malaysia and Singapore. The virus spreads through bodily fluids. Symptoms of infection 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. For the past two years, China‘s government has canceled meetings with U.S. officials to discuss American concerns about compliance with the biological weapons treaty.
The State Department said in a fact sheet released during the Trump administration’s last days that U.S. intelligence concluded that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had 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. It noted classified research and laboratory animal experiments for the People’s Liberation Army since at least 2017.
The Chinese research on Nipah was disclosed on Aug. 3 during a Senate hearing on gain-of-function research, including China’s work at the Wuhan institute in making bat viruses more transmissible to humans 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 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, warned that unregulated gain-of-function research poses pandemic threats.
Dr. Ebright said all research that involves 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 the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Institutes of Health have 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.
Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who co-chaired the hearing, said the subcommittee was seeking answers to the origin of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan in December 2019.
“I maintain that the techniques that the [National Institutes of Health] funded in Wuhan to create enhanced pathogens may have or could have been used to create COVID-19,” Mr. Paul said.
It was the first hearing in Congress on gain-of-function research, a possible source of the pandemic, Mr. Paul 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 that 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 said the virus began as a “spillover” event from Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market, where wild animals were sold as food.
The COVID-19 virus “has features consistent with synthetic biology gain-of-function research,” Dr. Quay said. He specifically cited two features of the virus that affect its ability to bind to human cells. Proponents of the lab leak theory also argue that, in the early months of the pandemic, no animal was found to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 anywhere, including the Wuhan market.
Features of the evolving virus place “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.”
The Chinese government 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 COVID-19 outbreak was declared, the Wuhan Institute of Virology removed a website that listed 21,000 viruses.