Origin of the COVID-19 pandemic and banning gain-of-function research

By Peter C. Gøtzsche, Institute for Scientific Freedom, Copenhagen

On September 17, van Helden et al. argued in a letter in The Lancet that a ”research-related origin is plausible” for the COVID-19 pandemic and called for independent research. They furthermore mentioned that “it is important to continue debating about the risk–benefit balance of current practices of field and laboratory research, including gain-of-function experiments.”

A week later, I submitted a letter to The Lancet in response to this letter, which the journal rejected today. As I raised an important issue for public health worldwide, I publish it here, with an additional paragraph about conflicts of interest.

For 20 years, virologists have been playing with fire by routinely creating far more dangerous viruses than those that exist in nature. Of all known SARS-related beta-coronaviruses, only SARS-CoV-2 possesses a furin cleavage site, and researchers, including Dr. Zhengli Shi in Wuhan, have added a furin site in at least 11 gain-of-function experiments. This suggests that SARS-CoV-2 was fabricated in Wuhan and escaped from a laboratory.

In 2014, a group of scientists warned against manufacturing dangerous viruses, which could cause outbreaks that might be impossible to control, and from 2014 to 2017, the US government had a moratorium on gain-of-function research.

The WHO inspection to China was a farce, which has been criticised by some of the world’s top virus researchers and also remarkably openly in August on Danish TV (transcript in English here) by the Danish leader of the mission.

Whatever one thinks of the origin of SARS-CoV-2, it is clear that if the Wuhan Institute of Virology had not conducted gain-of-function research, and therefore had not collected more than a thousand samples of coronaviruses from bat caves, there would have been no pandemic.

Gain-of-function research has not led to any benefits but has caused over 5 million deaths. The WHO and the United Nations should issue a call to stop all gain-of-function research permanently, and all governments should make gain-of-function research illegal, with stiff penalties for breaking the law. This research is a great threat to mankind and must stop.

I believe The Lancet had a conflict of interest when it declined to publish my letter. In February 2020, The Lancet allowed a group of virologists and others to write in the journal: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” It is not a conspiracy theory that a virus can escape from a lab, it is a fact. It was a huge mistake of The Lancet to publish this unsubstantiated nonsense, which, moreover, led the whole world astray for over a year. It later turned out that the letter had been organized and drafted by Dr. Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York, which funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute. If the SARS-CoV-2 virus had escaped from research he funded, he would be potentially culpable. The letter stated: “We declare no competing interests.” This was not true. Far from.