Dr Jonathan Latham also points to EcoHealth Alliance’s major conflicts of interest
Here is the (slightly shortened) transcript of a powerful interview (Background Briefing with Ian Masters, 29 April 2020) that the bioscientist Dr Jonathan Latham, who has a doctorate in virology, did for KPFK Pacifica Radio’s Background Briefing. Background Briefing covers US politics and international affairs. It is broadcast on more than forty radio stations across the US and its programmes are also available as podcasts.
In the interview, Dr Latham spells out his strong concerns about the kind of research that has been going on in Wuhan, China, which involves bat coronaviruses being put into human cells and optimised to replicate. He also explains the role in this work of the New York based EcoHealth Alliance and how their serious and multiple conflicts of interest have been little explored by the media.
Listening to the interview, it’s clear that the programme’s host, Ian Masters, is quite surprised by what Jonathan Latham has to say about EcoHealth Alliance. This reflects the free pass they have largely been given by the media, where they have been widely quoted condemning any attempts to link the virus behind the current pandemic to the Wuhan labs, in which they are so heavily invested.
EcoHealth Alliance has tried instead to keep attention focused on Wuhan's Huanan Seafood Market, or so-called “wet market”, as the source of the outbreak. But as Jonathan Latham says in the interview, not only are there clear reasons to doubt that the wet market was the source, but it also requires you to accept the most staggering coincidence. After all, given that wet markets are widespread in China – indeed across much of Asia, how remarkable is it that the virus’s zoonotic leap from animal to human just happened to take place in one that has a lab under 300 meters away, and another within 10 kilometres, that is researching not just bat coronaviruses, but the most closely related ones to the outbreak?
And as Jonathan Latham also notes, this research carried out in collaboration with EcoHealth Alliance includes so called “gain-of-function” studies “where you put pieces of humanised virus into animal viruses and then you see how they do in human cells or in other cells”. This is all “providing opportunities for contamination events and leakages from labs, which happen on a routine basis.”
In other words, the work the EcoHealth Alliance has been funding and enabling in Wuhan has been “providing an evolutionary opportunity for the virus to jump into humans”.
Yet because of the Trump administration cutting their grant for the Wuhan work, there has been a tendency on the part of many progressives in the US, including the progressive media, to portray EcoHealth Alliance as the innocent victim of Trump’s “bad science” and to enquire no further into the organisation or its activities. As the journalist Sam Husseini has quipped, “It doesn't matter what the actual cause of the pandemic is, it matters what Trump says and we have to attack what Trump says because that's what progressives are supposed to do.”
If they did take a closer look, as Husseini points out, they’d discover that “among the policy advisors for EcoHealth Alliance are David Franz, a former commander at Fort Detrick, the main US government biowarfare/biodefence facility, who spoke in 2018 at the rightwing Hudson Institute, and Thomas Geisbert, who is doing biodefence/biowarfare work at Galveston.” They would also find, as Latham says below, that their partners include corporate giants implicated in despoiling the natural world that EcoHealth Alliance claims to be intent on protecting.
Comment by Jonathan Matthews
Investigating the origins of the COVID-19 virus
Background Briefing with Ian Masters, 29 April 2020
Ian Masters: Joining us now is Jonathan Latham, who is the co-founder and executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project and the editor of Independent Science News. He’s also the director of the Poison Papers project, which publicises documents of the chemical industry and its regulators, and he has published scientific papers in disciplines as diverse as plant ecology, plant virology, genetics and genetic engineering. Welcome to Background Briefing, Jonathan Latham.
Jonathan Latham: Hi. Thanks for having me back, Ian.
Ian: …Trump [recently] said in this press conference [in response to a question about a contract the EcoHealth Alliance has had with the National Institute for Health], “Yes we will end this grant very quickly”. Well, it’s happened today: the EcoHealth Alliance, this New York based infectious disease research group working with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, have lost their government funding. In fact, what’s left of the grant, $370,000, they were told in an email to hand that money back. So this is a casualty of bad science and bad information coming from the President. Nothing new there. What do you know about the relationship between the EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology?
Jonathan: That it was pretty close. What we know, for example, is that in 2017 the institute published a paper on bat coronaviruses in which they did research on putting bat coronaviruses into human cells. And the specific concern that I have is that this kind of research is really risky research.
And the whole question has blown up as to whether this Wuhan lab was the original source of the virus. And this EcoHealth Alliance [is] being asked by all these media outlets to comment on the origins of the virus [and] has been denying that it came from the institute. But it was funding the institute and it was on the papers doing what I would consider to be very risky experiments. So they have a very interesting conflict of interest. I’m not a fan of the President but this research has been controversial for a very long time and if somebody puts an end to it I think that would probably be a good thing.
Ian: So why would you consider research where they were studying viruses in bats, some of which turned out to be very close to this corona virus, why is that not a good thing, given that we’ve had these zoonotic leaps from animals into humans with SARS, MERS, Ebola etc. So why not study these viruses that occur in nature, and bats are the vector?
Jonathan: Well, we should study these viruses. There’s no doubt about that. The question is how you want to go about that. The question becomes: Is it necessary, for example, in the 2017 paper, which is a collaboration between the EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute, why do you want to put a whole coronavirus into human cells that you have optimised to replicate the virus? What you’re doing is basically providing an evolutionary opportunity for the virus to jump into humans.
And the whole point of the EcoHealth Alliance is to warn us about how this [spillover] is a dangerous thing and yet you go and do it in a lab. And if you want to make vaccines, understand the virus, know where it’s coming from, and so on, those are all good research aims. But they are not really advanced by doing that kind of experiment. And if you read the conclusions of the paper they’re basically that we should be worried about coronaviruses. Well, we already were worried about coronaviruses because of the SARS outbreak. This never provided a new reason to be worried about them but it did provide a new reason to be worried about the kind of research that they’ve been doing, which includes gain-of-function research.
They have been doing collaborations with the EcoHealth Alliance [that] include gain of function research where you put pieces of humanised virus into animal viruses and then you see how they do in human cells or in other cells. And they all are all providing opportunities for contamination events and leakages from labs, which happen on a routine basis.
Ian: Well, these biolevel 4 labs are supposed to be the most secure in the world with all kinds of disciplines, surely?
Jonathan: Yes, but their safety record is terrible. You see pictures of people suited up in their positive pressure suits and so on and so forth, but the record of these labs is really poor. This is the point of the article in the Washington Post the other day, which is basically pointing out cables from the US government saying they are concerned about this Wuhan lab, that they’re doing risky research and not taking proper precautions. They are worried about the training of the staff. They did multiple visits to that site and were very unhappy with what they found. It’s one thing to be a biosafety lab but China has no regulations for biosafety, basically. So the President of China has talked about we need to have regulations for biosafety. Well, they should have had that before they started doing the research.
Ian: But the one thing that we can make clear, surely, about some of these conspiracy theories coming out about the Wuhan Institute of Virology and, I guess, by extension its relationship with the EcoHealth Alliance, is that the genetic sequence of this coronavirus [behind] COVID-19 was quickly published and researchers around the world have been working with it and there is no indication of any manipulation and gene splicing which would indicate some kind of bioweapon was let loose.
Jonathan: Yes, I totally agree. No one that I’ve spoken to, and I agree, thinks this is a weapon. This is people trying to develop vaccines, trying to understand the virus, so on and so forth. But it’s not a weapon, nobody thinks that. It would be a very foolish weapon to release on the world.
Ian: So what do you think is going to happen? I know US intelligence is looking at it and the Chinese, of course, are not being particularly cooperative. The fact that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is only, what, 8 miles from the so-called wet market where it was assumed this zoonotic leap took place. That is a bit of a coincidence, is it not?
Jonathan: It’s an amazing coincidence. Firstly, there is a thing you didn’t know, which is that there is another virology lab, which is just 300 meters from the wet market. That’s a BSL2 lab where they supposedly have done coronavirus research. So you have got two labs in Wuhan. Both of them appear to be doing coronavirus research. The big one, the BSL4 lab, that should be more secure, has the world’s biggest collection of bat coronaviruses, including the one most closely related to the outbreak. So that’s a coincidence in the first place.
If you want to say that this is a product of the animal trade, of farming, civets or trade in pangolins or bats, or people eating bats, and so forth, if you want to offer that as an explanation, you have to also explain why that outbreak happened in Wuhan. Because Wuhan is a city of 10 million people; China is a country of 1.2 billion, and [so] why would that outbreak happen in Wuhan? There would be no reason for it not to happen anywhere else [given that none of those things are unique to Wuhan], right?
So the question becomes: Why did it [happen] in Wuhan? And when they are doing this research, and they have the most closely related viruses, they are doing gain-of-function studies, they’re putting these things into human cells, and doing what in my opinion are crazy experiments. These are really serious questions to answer here.
Ian: Well, there is no question that the eating habits themselves are very questionable. They’re still selling bats, by the way, I believe at that Wuhan wet market.
Jonathan: Well, there’s a scientific article that says there were no bats at that market. That’s not the last word on anything. People do eat bats. So I think it’s difficult to know what was at that Wuhan market. If you think about your local farmers’ market where people may or may not sell meat on one day or another, and so forth, we may never get to the bottom of what was being sold at that market. But the question I would come back to: Why would it break out in Wuhan 300 meters from a biosafety virology lab.
Ian: Well, do you think this question will be answered? I don’t believe the Chinese government will.
Jonathan: The stories are that the Chinese government is trying to… I would take these stories with a pinch of salt but CNN and the Washington Post and various other outlets have claimed that the Chinese government is suppressing research, that it has been destroying samples, that it is disappearing people who are close to the source.
And the World Health Organisation ran an expedition to Wuhan to look at every aspect of the virus outbreak but they did not research the possibility of this being a lab spillover, lab accident event. So I think it’s very difficult.
And the second problem with all this is that if you look at the EcoHealth Alliance, which is in part funding this research, they are partnered with the World Health Organisation, the CDC, the Gates Foundation is on their board of advisors. The question then becomes: Who is going to run such an investigation, because what other credible organisation is there to do that?
All of them are implicated in what’s being funded by the EcoHealth Alliance, which is funding research not only on coronaviruses. They are collecting viruses from all over the world, all different kinds, like Ebola virus and so forth. They’re doing these experiments all over. They have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in projects to do this kind of research. So it’s very far from [just] coronaviruses. So you’ve got very big interests involved in all this and no credible organisation to actually do an investigation.
Ian: Well again, nobody would question the validity of doing this kind of research. Apparently, they go into caves and get saliva and blood from bats. And then they find all kinds of viruses in them and apparently the freezers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology are full with all kinds of viruses. And that is one of the complaints the EcoHealth Alliance is having with Trump having cut off their funds.
And it’s pretty clear to me because of the softball question that he got from Newsmax the other day, when he said, “I’m going to stop the funding”, and blamed the funding again on Obama, none of which is true... This seems to be again an attack on science from Trump. I don’t know how Dr Fauci feels about cutting off this money, but EcoHealth Alliance is saying, “This is crazy. We’ve got all these viruses that we’re studying sitting in a freezer in China now. We need to know what these viruses are and what they can do if they ever end up in humans.”
Jonathan: Well, there are good and bad reasons for supporting the EcoHealth Alliance. There are many issues with the EcoHealth Alliance, I would say.
If you read what their concerns are about the emergence of these infections, what’s really interesting is that, on the one hand, they like to talk about big picture human impacts on the environment, how we’re cutting down the rainforest and so on and so forth. But then in their narrative they always go to, “Well, we must put a stop to the wildlife trade.” We must put a stop to small… you know, the little guys, basically.
And the real problem if you want to argue that these virus infections come from a human intrusion into the natural world, the place you need to look at is the beef industry, the soybean industry, the palm oil industry. And the EcoHealth Alliance misses that part. They go straight to the wildlife trade, ignoring the fact that the human destruction of the rainforest has to do with agribusiness. It has to do with big organisations.
And it ought to be pointed out that the EcoHealth Alliance is funded by Colgate Palmolive; it’s funded by Reckitt [Benckiser], it’s funded by Johnson & Johnson. Right? What are these companies doing? They are buying large quantities of palm oil. So there is a conflict of interest here. There are a lot of complicated stories going on here.
And the EcoHealth Alliance is being interviewed in all these media outlets, from the New York Times, to Scientific American… They are all over the media not blaming palm oil, not blaming agribusiness, not blaming the people who are the true culprits for the destruction of the ecosystems. They have totally zeroed in on the wildlife trade, which is a problem, I agree. But it is not as big a problem as the palm oil industry. Not by a hundredfold.
Ian: Well, I’m not sure that you can blame the EcoHealth Alliance for the press’s lack of focus on the real culprit here. And it’s agribusiness, as you point out, and also these big food companies that use palm oil … they are just absolutely ravaging what’s left of the world’s rainforests to put this stuff in food.
Jonathan: But you won’t get the EcoHealth Alliance to talk about that. Nominally their purpose is to show people the connections between the destruction of the natural world and their health. But actually they don’t do that, they totally bypass the main part of that. They don’t [inaudible] their interests to the palm oil industry.
Ian: Well, I’m not sure it is their responsibility to talk about that. If their lane is to research these wet markets, I don’t see why these things are mutually exclusive. But if they are taking money from palm oil manufacturers or companies that use palm oil, then there would be a conflict of interest.
Jonathan: There absolutely is.
Ian: I see. OK. Well, I thank you for joining us and filling us in on this. I don’t imagine we will ever find out one way or the other what the origin of this pandemic is. Do you think we ever will find out?
Jonathan: It’s possible that research will provide a slam dunk case. I think that if nobody finds an animal intermediate, and a virus floating around in a civet or a pangolin, or whatever it is, and there are no more avenues in that direction; and yet we know that the COVID spike protein binds incredibly powerfully to human receptors (to the human ACE2 receptor); and we know that the Wuhan lab was doing experiments, which was basically train up this bat coronavirus to adapt to the human ACE2 receptor, then, you know, we’re as close as you'll ever get in scientific terms to proving that.