Newsweek recently put out some surprising reports that the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) had funded the controversial Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). The WIV is the level four research facility suspected by some of being a possible source for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already been on record confirming and defending this funding, saying it was “to protect American people from labs that aren’t up to standard.”
According to Newsweek, funding for the WIV occurred in two phases. The first took place from 2014 to 2019, through a $3.7 million project for collecting and studying bat coronaviruses. This work was largely led by Dr. Zhengli Shi, known to many as “batwoman” for her years investigating caves in search of new bat viruses. The second phase began shortly after, with another $3.7 million. Unlike the first, this project appears to have included work on “gain-of-function”: research that investigates how a virus can gain the ability to infect a new type of animal.
Anyone with a vague sense of current events would, understandably, be concerned that COVID-19 might have been produced through this research. The connections to the NIH would also be unsettling, offering the possibility that the U.S. government may be complicit, having unnecessarily “outsourced” dangerous research. Although strong denials by both Chinese and American officials and several pieces of scientific research have concluded COVID-19 is not man-made, the connection between the NIH and WIV still behooves critical examination. Why would the NIH want to fund the WIV to begin with?
The first, and perhaps most important reason, may be just as Pompeo said: to help bring Chinese labs up to higher safety standards. As a professor of cell biology at Dongseo University in South Korea and an ex-director of the Tan School of Genetics at Fudan University in China, I have had the opportunity to visit many science facilities across Asia. I can say with some authority that safety standards can, in many cases, fall short of what you would expect in the United States. Whether these shortcomings would necessarily apply to highly-sensitive environments like the WIV I cannot say, as my experiences are limited to academic contexts. Nevertheless, I must concede it is possible, especially in 2014, when the NIH funding began, that the WIV may have needed some help in establishing better safety protocols.
The need for outside help is by no means abnormal, as many countries in the process of establishing new science programs often need to invite outside experts to help build them. The department I am associated with at Dongseo University, for example, drew heavily on the expertise of German professors from the Technische Universität Berlin for building both curricula and research projects. No doubt the WIV would have needed similar assistance, especially early on in its development. A common method is to invite one’s old mentors and colleagues to help advise and monitor progress. With most Chinese scientists, including Dr. Shi, having received their degrees abroad, such invitations would, most likely, have focused on foreign experts, perhaps providing links to people associated with the NIH.
Another reason the NIH may have decided to provide funding is to help foster international cooperation and better communication. In modern times, science funding is not merely a means for buying equipment and hiring workers; it is also a tool for diplomacy. Providing funding often obligates the recipient lab to disclose its findings and allow visits and inspections. In many respects, this access and increased transparency is much preferred to having a lab operate in secret, especially when the subject is potentially dangerous. Scientists working at WIV would, no doubt, also have preferred having experienced foreigners coming in periodically to evaluate the facility, confirming its safety.
A third reason could be the fact that the United States has long held a fierce debate about the ethics and risks of gain-of-function (GOF) research. Critics, such as Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, have argued that such work “entails a unique risk that a laboratory accident could spark a pandemic, killing millions.” These objections motivated the Obama administration to halt all domestic GOF research in 2011, a restriction that was later lifted in 2017, following the implementation of new safety protocols. Although we do not know exactly what went into the decision to fund the WIV during this moratorium, it is likely that domestic restrictions may have played a role, forcing the proponents of such work to seek opportunities abroad. These proponents are of the opinion that GOF research is worth the risk, being the best way to understand, prevent, and treat pandemics, an argument that is not without merit.
Unfortunately, from the public’s perspective, reports about the connection between the NIH and WIV are at risk of feeding conspiracy theory fires. With some Chinese officials already blaming the United States for the pandemic and the Trump administration appearing intent on blaming China in return without divulging any decisive evidence, it is quite difficult, even for experts, to develop a fully-informed opinion about what exactly happened. And therein lies a dangerous problem: unanswered questions can only deepen peoples’ suspicions about science.
In the United States, for example, there have already been widespread reports of citizens across the country rejecting or doubting the legitimacy of the pandemic. Some have labelled COVID-19 a liberal media hoax, while others have taken the extraordinary measure of lining up in front of hospitals to accost medical staff and accuse them of being “actors.” Although these opinions seem to be restricted to a small minority, it is difficult to imagine how such opinions can be held without some level of suspicion or doubt about science. Both I and others have reported about the important relationship between scientific literacy and belief in the pandemic, with a decrease in the former likely fueling a decrease in the latter, sometimes adversely affecting compliance with virus containment efforts.
Put simply, the circumstantial evidence surrounding the WIV and its connections to the NIH are a bad look for science. Even if the virus didn’t come from the facility, as Dr. Shi claimed in interviews with Scientific American, I think there is a burden of proof that must be undertaken to convince the public. If there is absolute certainty, please show us the evidence. It is our duty as scientists to be transparent. No doubt there will be some who will never be convinced, but there is also likely a sizable audience that would be receptive to new information, making the effort worthwhile.
As the pandemic rages on, the worst possible thing is for the rumor mill to latch onto uncertainties and convince more people that the voice of science is not to be trusted. COVID-19 may have begun in a lab, or not. Either way, the only thing that remains certain is that science will be the brightest light guiding us out of the pandemic. Since there will be plenty of time to divvy blame later, I implore that we stay focused on the monumental task at hand without getting bogged down in the politicization of science.
Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea.