US and Chinese researchers planned to investigate whether they could fight SARS-like coronaviruses through bats in the wild with the aim of preventing an epidemic among humans. This is apparent from a research proposal from March 2018 that surfaced last week thanks to the work of the activist group DRASTIC. This group of partly anonymous activists has been trying to collect clues about the origin of the pandemic for some time.

The research proposal concerns a grant application of $14.2 million that has been submitted to the research arm of the US Department of Defense DARPA.

The disclosure of the research plans does not provide a new answer to the question of whether the origin of SARS-CoV-2 escaped from the lab or jumped from the wild – all scenarios are still open. The leaked research proposal has caused new unrest.

DARPA says in a comment opposite the American online magazine The Intercept that it cannot confirm the authenticity of the document. The lead author of the research project, Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, also declined to respond to questions from The Intercept. However, there is no indication that the application is a forgery. The identification number on it corresponds to an actual existing DARPA grant program and the descriptions of the research plans are so detailed that they are unlikely to have been fabricated.

Rejected or not, now that it turns out this was a serious plan, it’s strange it wasn’t mentioned earlier

In a public discussion of scientists organized by the magazine Science Singaporean virologist Linfa Wang implicitly confirmed on Thursday that the proposal was genuine. Wang was one of the co-applicants for the grant and was familiar with its contents, but said he had not said anything about it before “because he is not aware of DARPA’s rules” on confidentiality.

Also read Rosanne Hertzberger’s column: Did the virus escape from a lab? New. But still

The content of the plans is striking from the perspective of the current situation, in which a coronavirus has already killed more than 4.5 million people worldwide. The aim was to conduct a field trial in three caves in the Chinese province of Yunnan in which wild bats would be immunized against coronaviruses using a vaccine spray. The project was called DEFUSE, as a symbolic name for pulling the fuse out of a future pandemic.

The preliminary work on the bat vaccine would be done in the lab of Ralph Baric at the University of North Carolina. Eventually, that would also be tested on wild-caught horseshoe bats, in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Chinese side has always denied that the lab in Wuhan worked with live bats, but apparently the plans were there.

The study would also genetically alter the coronaviruses to find out which genetic traits would make them dangerous to humans. These kinds of tests are called ‘gain of function’ experiments, in which artificial interventions make natural viruses more dangerous. But according to the grant applicants, their experiments fell outside this definition. Nevertheless, DARPA rejected the proposal, possibly for this reason.

But, rejected or not, now that it turns out this was a serious plan, it’s strange it wasn’t mentioned earlier. Lead applicant Peter Daszak was actually part of the ten-member WHO mission that went to Wuhan in early 2021 to investigate the origin of the pandemic. These research plans are not mentioned in the WHO final report. Even if the investigation may not have gone ahead at all, it is still relevant to know whether preparatory work had already been done. Instead, Daszak was an initiator from a call from scientists in The Lancet in March 2020 in which they “strongly condemn conspiracy theories that suggest that Covid-19 has no natural origin”.

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