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Despite 'correction,' Wuhan virologist's 2015 paper on bat-to-human coronaviruses still references mystery strain

Feature China/Future Publishing via Getty Images

A scientific paper concerning the creation of a novel infectious pathogen by way of gain-of-function research — one that could infect human cells — was published in "Nature Medicine" in 2015. It documented how researchers manufactured a "chimeric virus" by placing the "spike of bat coronavirus SHC014" into the molecular structure of the SARS virus, which could replicate in human airway cells and possibly be transmitted to humans.

That paper, by University of North Carolina epidemiologist Ralph Baric and Wuhan Institute of Virology top coronavirus researcher Zhengli Shi, has been subject to two corrections, the latter of which contains a glaring aberration.

The first correction was made in April 2016, noting that the paper's authors omitted to mention that they had been partly funded by scandal-plagued EcoHealth Alliance, which in turn was partly funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

This funding came through despite an earlier announcement by the Obama administration that a pause had been placed on the funding of any new studies involving gain-of-function experiments with influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses. The paper's authors noted that this study was initiated before the pause on gain-of-function research and that its continuation was approved by the National Institutes of Health.

The second correction was made in July 2020, noting that "the sequence of the mouse adapted SHC015-MA15 virus had not been deposited in GenBank. The sequence has now been deposited in GenBank under accession number MT308984." GenBank is the NIH database of all publicly available DNA sequences and their protein translations.

The accession number provided in the correction is connected with "Mutant SARS coronavirus Urbani clone SARS-Urbani-MA_SHC014-spike, complete genome."

The sequence referenced in the so-called correction, SHC015-MA15, does not, however, exist; certainly not in the corresponding academic literature.

TheBlaze reached out for comment to Dr. Baric, Dr. Shi, and other researchers involved with this paper, but they have not yet replied.

A senior editor at "Nature Medicine" indicated on October 17, "We are looking into it."

No correction has yet been made.

The study

The study examined "the disease potential of a SARS-like virus, SHC014-CoV," which at the time had been circulating in Chinese horseshoe bat populations. The researchers, including a virologist at the Wuhan lab believed to be the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, claimed to have reverse-engineered SARS-CoV to create a "chimeric virus" expressing the spike of a bat coronavirus in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone.

By using SARS receptor human angiotensin-converting enzyme II, the resultant strain was able to "replicate efficiently in primary human airway cells." The study noted that once in a lab mouse's lungs, there was was a notable development of a deadly condition.

The researchers ultimately "synthetically re-derived an infectious full-length SHC014 recombinant virus and demonstrate[d] robust viral replication both in vitro and in vivo."

Baric and Shi cautioned in their paper that "scientific review panels may deem similar studies building chimeric viruses based on circulating strains too risky to pursue, as increased pathogenicity in mammalian models cannot be excluded."

They emphasized that gain-of-function research posed a risk of "creating more dangerous pathogens."

Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, suggested that Baric, Shi, and the others involved in this study created a virus that "grows remarkably well" in human cells. "If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory."

Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, stated that the "only impact of this work is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk."

Shi claimed last year that her lab "has never conducted or cooperated in conducting GOF experiments that enhance the virulence of viruses."

Newsweek contradicted Shi's claim in 2020, noting that Shi's WIV had been being conducting GOF research for years.

The NIH later confirmed that EcoHealth and the WIV conducted GOF research on bat coronaviruses.

Concerning the 2015 study, Baric later claimed that "the only gain-of-function that occurred in that virus is that we changed its antigenicity. ... And what the data tells you is that any vaccine or antibody that you'd made against the original virus from 2003 wasn't going to protect the public against this new virus if it should emerge."

An article published on November 12, 2015, in Nature indicated that Baric planned to conduct further studies with the SHC014 virus in non-human primates.

On Thursday, Senate Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee released a 35-page interim report stating that the "COVID-19 pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident."

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