In an interview conducted on May 8, 2020, Pat Thomas and Dr. Jonathan Latham discussed the possible origins of COVID-19, the lack of security in labs conducting research on viruses, and the question of whether this type of research is even necessary or productive. Latham is co-founder and executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project and editor of Independent Science News. He holds a master's degree in Crop Genetics and a Ph.D in Virology.
PT: We're here with the Organic Consumers Association. Wherever you’re joining us from today; welcome! This is part two of our look at the origin of the coronavirus. Yesterday, we talked to Professor Stuart Newman who explained a bit about why he felt that the idea that the virus had escaped from a lab had some legs and why, until all the evidence is in, we shouldn't discount the possibility that at some point along the line, it had been genetically engineered. We looked at how the virus can be manipulated in the lab, and the state of play of viral research around the world, and how this is a rapidly expanding field.
So why does it matter? It matters because many—if not most of us—are sincerely trying to understand this thing that has upended our lives and the lives of millions—if not billions—of people around the world. It matters because nobody likes to be misled. And it matters because if the lab escape theory, and all the sub-narratives around it are true, it's a very big deal. And this is where today's guest comes in.. We have Dr. Jonathan Latham, co-founder and executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project and editor of Independent Science News. Jonathan holds a master's degree in Crop Genetics and a Ph.D in Virology. Jonathan, welcome!
JL: Hi there, Pat.
PT: Jonathan, I know you have several concerns about the nature of the research that has been going on in the labs in Wuhan, in China, and around what would appear to be worrying conflicts of interests at play in the background. So if you will, I would love you to walk us through some of those issues, one at a time, beginning with the possibilities around the escape from the lab, and your concerns about the research that's going on right now.
JL: I don't think this is a bio weapon. I don't think we're talking about biowarfare here. There's no evidence for that, and so the possibilities that concern me, specifically, about what was going on at the Wuhan lab is that they're collecting a lot of bat viruses. They're going out into caves, and mines and places like that, and collecting these bats. Sometimes without, evidently, proper safety gear. There's pictures online of Dr. Shi releasing a bat in a pink top, and with a tiny thin pair of gloves on. These are researchers who don't appear to be paying attention to the fact that bats simply can transmit viruses. So it's possible that they were collecting viruses, and they brought them home to Wuhan, and one of them got an infection or was bit. There are accounts of that online. There is a very simple possibility which doesn't even involve genetic engineering, just sloppy safety practices.
The second possibility is that they bring these viruses back to the lab, they do various experiments, they put them in monkey cells, they put them in human cells, they put them into altered cells of different kinds—and then they have an accident, a spill, a failure of disposal. It’s some kind of human error. And that results in an infection, an infection of a lab person, or a disposal person. And you don't need to envisage any civets, or pangolins, or intermediary species, simply that these were spilled viruses. These are recombinant experiments gone wrong.
Then the third possibility is that they did engineer these viruses, and secondly that they were doing “gain-of-function” studies. So you've got a bunch of possibilities. You've got people who are moving viruses through different cultures, you put a live virus into a culture and it evolves whether you want it to, or not. This is called a “passaging” type experiment. The lab no longer knows what the virus is that they're handling. They may move it from one cell line to another cell line, from one animal to another, from one animal species to another, either on purpose or by accident. That's a whole set of “passaging” type experiments that can lead near-pandemic pathogens to become pandemic pathogens.
The last possibility, is they were doing experiments recombining viruses, “gain-of-function” type experiments that are banned in the U.S. since 2017. This is real recombinant viruses being made. They are hybrids between different kinds of viruses, maybe even combined with pathology. There are people who do experiments in which they make a “gain-of-function” mutant, or a hybrid, and then they do passaging experiments. I call these “doomsday experiments” in which you combine all the worst features of these experiments into one single experiment, and then it escapes.
There are people doing all these, and combinations of these, including people who are collaborators of the Wuhan lab, or in the Wuhan lab. They have won grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to do these exact kinds of experiments. It’s not a hypothetical here.
PT: “Gain-of-function” is the phrase du jour, and this is the stepwise process in which scientists can make a virus more transmissible, or more virulent. Is that right?
JL: Yes, one of those two.
PT: This is a real controversy amongst scientists, because we're taking these viruses that are potentially dangerous and making them more powerful. We talked about chimeras yesterday, and in mythology, the chimera has the head of a lion, and the midsection of a goat, and the backside of a dragon. This combination of things is what makes it more powerful, and it's exactly the same thing with viruses.
Scientists who do this work are defending it, saying we need to understand how they function in all their forms. But the reason it was the subject of a moratorium in 2014, was because of the potential of escape, and a possible pandemic. And here we are a few years later. Do we get anything useful out of this kind of research?
JL: I think that's a really important question. It's very reductionist research, that's one critique of it. You focus on certain parts of the viruses, which are claimed to be the most important parts. You learn what happens when you add the spike protein of one virus to the backbone of another, or the cleaved site of one virus added to another virus. But you're making a lot of assumptions about what is being evolved, and what the starting material is. These are, in my opinion, unwarranted assumptions. Because a pandemic virus isn't necessarily going to evolve in the way that you think it is. You've shown that you can make a pandemic-type virus in the lab. But on a global scale, it is potentially disastrous but a scientifically trivial demonstration. These people are doing research that panics people, without actually learning much—if anything.
PT: Presumably, what happens in the lab is very linear. Whereas, once the virus is out in the world, it's a much more connected, systemic and unpredictable situation.
JL: That's one other aspect of the reductionist thinking. People can say they've made a pandemic virus in a particular set of cells, that's their scientific finding, and that's what they publish. But the natural world doesn't say that it has to evolve in those kinds of cells. It could come from a different species via another backbone, with a different spike. Are they going to do these experiments forever? Creating pandemic viruses, simply to generate research funds?
PT: How do we research viruses? How do we learn about them, and what is the best way to do that?
JL: There are many choices. One of the options is not to use live viruses. If you want to do reductionist research, why do you have to use live viruses? There's also other questions like, why not why not do these experiments in Alaska? I don't want to pick on Alaskans, but the point is, these experiments are being done in Wuhan, which is one of the most populated cities in China. Why do you have to do it there?
The U.S. government is building a lab in Kansas, and the Department of Homeland Security has estimated there is a 70-percent chance of a pandemic lab escape from this laboratory over its projected lifetime of 50 years. Why does this experiment have to be done in areas where there are high populations? You can do these things in the middle of the desert. You can do these things in very remote areas, and do it much more safely. You can quarantine, for example, the people who do these experiments. You can visit the station for a month, do experiments, come back, and have those people be in quarantine. There are much safer ways of doing these experiments. It seems all this research is set up to tempt fate.
PT: I was really struck by a tweet from Richard Ebright. He was talking about these adventurous scientists who capture animals and bring them back to the lab to study all these viruses, and and he called it a “reckless pseudo-scientific Indiana Jones Adventure-ism,” which—I think—apart from being a brilliant phrase, is a very strong condemnation of the fact that there are people out there, collecting live animals, bringing them into the lab, and multiplying the possibility of a catastrophic escape. It brings up the issue of biosafety, which is another issue with the way that the research is being conducted. As you say, it's always in crowded centers, sexy centers in sexy cities, rather than out in isolation. It's an accident waiting to happen.
JL: These accidents have happened many times.
PT: Exactly my next question!
JL: SARS is considered to have escaped from labs. SARS is the previous iteration of a pandemic flu that was considered to be a near miss. We had a flu in 2012, and SARS in 2002. Since people have been researching SARS, there are considered to be six near-miss lab escapes of SARS: four in China and two in other countries. Several hundred people became ill, and two people have died in these near misses. The only reason anybody knew there was an escape from the confined lab situation was because people were investigating a different outbreak and discovered another one in the lab. Lab members were sick, and didn't know they had SARS.
This is not a wild accusation to say that these are viruses that come from a lab. In Britain, we've had smallpox outbreaks that came from labs, and we've had foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks that came from labs. There's been any number of these accidents and outbreaks from labs. Just this morning I was reading about how some researchers at the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] discovered a tube of smallpox in their freezer without there being any containment around it at all! They just picked it out of the freezer, and it said smallpox on it.
PT: That brings me to my next point, or rather extending the point, about why we do this. I was really interested to see that there have been reports about when the moratorium on gain-of-function first was enacted, in 2014, the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases was still very interested in pursuing this sort of research. So while the moratorium was going on in the U.S., they were still pursuing it in other countries where there wasn't a moratorium. My question is, if everybody isn't playing by the same rules, isn't that a major flaw in the system?
JL: It looks like what happened in 2014 is the U.S. instituted a moratorium over the objections of research scientists. The Eco Health Alliance, who have been in the news plenty recently, was apparently using U.S. taxpayer funds to fund the Wuhan lab as an end-run around the ban. The ban has now been reversed by the Trump administration. That's what looks like happened, because the grant clearly lays open the possibility of doing gain-of-function type research, and mixing and matching potential pandemic pathogenic viruses.
PT: Of course, the interesting twist in that story is that NIAID [the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] is actually run by Anthony Fauci, the most trusted man in America.
JL: He has quite a record, Tony Fauci. I wish the media was slightly more skeptical of his credentials. He's been involved in a whole series of questionable events, and what it comes down to for me is, you've got these people running the research situation in the U.S., they have been in power for a long time. Francis Collins is the head of the National Institutes of Health, he's been there for 20 years. These are basically like dictators. It used to be the case that these research heads would come and go in a three, or four, or five year period. Some of these people have been in charge of their respective institutions for 20 years now. What was once a democracy, what was once controlled democratically, and what was a research-led project is becoming more of a corrupt kind of corporate led, in-group cabal of interests, that are running a U.S. research agenda. They have nothing to do with the public interest, and nothing to do with health.
PT: There's a lot of vested interests around this, and I know you particularly wanted to talk about the Eco Health Alliance. Can you tell us a little bit about who they are, and what their role is in in this coronavirus saga, and what their relationship is to the Wuhan Institute of Neurology?
JL: The NIH has given about $15 million to an organization called the Eco Health Alliance, and the head of that is Peter Daszak. They have used that money for funding biology research in other countries, developing countries for the most part. They've been dispensing that money to do the kind of research that many people find problematic—collecting viruses and doing experiments on them in the lab, as a way of claiming to be estimating pandemic risks and developing potential cures and potential vaccines. But they were the funders of the grant for gain-of-function type research at the Wuhan lab, that started in 2014. If this really was an end run around the ban on gain-of-function research, they were the conduit. They've been basically using U.S. taxpayer money to fund this research abroad.
PT: The name Eco Health sounds so positive. and their website seems to be saying, we need to look at the way that the natural world interacts with the human world, and figure out how these diseases can affect us. But that's not all they do
JL: There's a complicated situation here. If you look at their supporters, if you look at their funders—the funds mostly are public money—but if you look at their supporters, if you look at their policy advisers, you come up with a very interesting list of people.
Firstly, the policy advisors are people like the Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization, the CDC, the NIH, and there's even British public health institutions. On the one hand you’ve got those kind of research interests who want to get NIH public money—they've [Eco Health Alliance] got $15 million, that's quite a decent pot.
On the other hand, you have Eco Health Alliance listing corporations as part of their support network. Of the corporations listed, a few of them are chemical companies, and other ones are things like Johnson & Johnson, there is also Colgate Palmolive, there is also Reckitt Benckiser, which is another detergent, hygienic preparedness-type company. You start to see a pattern, which is that these are companies that use large amounts of palm oil. These companies are, in my opinion, attempting to divert the narrative around the destruction of the rainforests, away from the idea of palm oil, and agribusiness and big companies, and directing that towards blaming the little guys—the little guys who do the wildlife trading, the little guys who cut down the forests with their hand axes, and the people involved in the medical trade, and the wet markets of China. Those activities aren’t necessarily great, and I wouldn't support them.
But if you want to make connections between public health, and rainforest destruction and ecological destruction, the people you should be looking at are the palm oil plantations, the cattle plantations, the soybeans and the loggers. These are the big interests that are destroying the rainforest. But what you see in the interviews with members of the Eco Health Alliance is they go from “rainforests are being destroyed” directly into a narrative about wildlife trade, of people coming into contact with wild animals, wild bats, wild pangolins and so forth. This is a total mis-description of what is really going on. So while they profess all this concern for the rainforest, they're not addressing the number one drivers of its destruction.
You see where the interest of the palm oil people comes in; you get the public trust of scientists who will talk about their important research to do with viruses, of virus research, and how they're collecting viruses from the wild, but they are the spokespeople for this movement. The New York Times, Science magazine, Nature magazine, The Guardian, New Scientist; all these media go to Peter Daszack, to members of the Eco Health Alliance, and they ask them about how to prevent pandemics, and how to stop the destruction of the rainforests, and these One Health people—One Health is kind of an umbrella term—is overlapping with the Eco Health Alliance. These people will point you towards wildlife trading. The Chinese government even bought into this narrative, and shut down the Wuhan market, and shut down all these places that, quite likely, were not the original location of the outbreak in the first place. So we come back to the question of ‘Did it come from a lab, or did it come from wild bats, and a rainforest, and so forth?’ My answer will be that, spending all this money trying to prevent the destruction of the rate of the natural world in totally wrong ways, and also the philanthropists and the nation-states guilty consciences are directing them into spending billions of dollars on vaccines and cures for the pandemic, but these are being spent on the kind of experiments that the Wuhan lab did. This money isn't going to be spent on experiments that are dangerous or maybe excellerate the next pandemic.
PT: It's certainly of concern to me, it's of concern to Organic Consumers, it's of concern to Regeneration International. https://regenerationinternational.org/ The destruction of the natural world is feeding into human health issues.The truth is we don't know where the virus came from. There's as much speculation on every side, but what interests me is the fact is that the wet market story is so convenient, for so many people. It's convenient for those who want to demonize China, it's convenient for those who want to develop vaccines, it's convenient in a lot of ways. It stops people and the media trying to make sense of this, of thinking through other options. In fact, one of the great casualties of this pandemic is resilient thinking. A lot of people have become very fragile in the way that they view this.
I was also interested in the way that, very quickly, we have started to turn to foundations with very deep pockets to try and help us out of this problem. Foundations can be more nimble in terms of their responses than governments can be. But foundations, as you've made the point quite clearly, they also have a focus on delivering things like vaccines and medicines, rather than building resilient health systems and thinking about how we can improve our environment. That’s what One Earth, One Health is about, what happens to the Earth, happens to us. But it somehow has become perverted into “Let's make more vaccines, so that we can be healthy.” It's a real can of worms, and you opened it up a little bit wider today, in terms of new characters to consider and new options to consider for me. I would like to see our media dig a little deeper on this, and not just take the word of those that are the convenient mouthpieces
JL: On the face of it, it's astounding how little digging the media has done. You have China's only BSL-4 lab at the epicenter of this epidemic, in a part of China where you wouldn't expect the bat virus to emerge. China has a population of a billion to 1.3 billion people. Wuhan is a city of 11 million people. If you do the math, there's a pretty remote concatenation of chances. Why doesn't the media dig into that question? It's so obvious, and yet they haven't done it.
PT: It doesn't take that much digging, because the research is there. You’ve rattled off several cases of leaks from laboratories, and you've rattled off several characters that have interesting connections. It's not that it takes a lot of digging, it's just that it stirs up so many problems when you start to talk about things like this.
JL: The interconnections of it are very deep. If you research this you're going to offend the vaccine makers, you're going to offend the Chinese government, you're going to offend agribusiness, we're going to upset the research community, and the scientific community in general.The number of people who've spoken out in favor that it [the virus] came from a wet lab, all these scientists who’ve written letters to the presidents of the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Medicine saying, “How dare they accuse this thing of being an escape from the lab,” all these people are, without even seeking any evidence, are simply writing letters to the president calling this a conspiracy. These are enemies of free thought at this point. You can't come down firmly on one side, based on not having a clue what happened in that lab, and call it a fact.
PT: Jonathan, we're coming to the end of our time here. I don't know that we're any closer to finding the actual truth, but I think it's good to poke under leaves, and look under rocks, and see what's actually happening. I've really appreciated the clarity that you brought to this. I hope maybe when we go over this again, you can come back and talk to us.
Pat Thomas is a journalist and author of several books on health and environment including “Complete Wellness and What Works, What Doesn’t – The Guide to Alternative Healthcare.” She is also the editor at Natural Health News in the UK. See more on her website. Thomas frequently writes for the Organic Consumers Association. You can sign up here for OCA’s news and alerts.