2018 coronavirus research in NIAID Montana lab is unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic, contrary to claim by Fox News’s Jesse Watters
Some coronaviruses pose a threat to human health, as illustrated by the 2003 SARS outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the coronaviruses that have been thoroughly studied is WIV-1, because it can infect humans. However, WIV-1 is only loosely related to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and thus isn’t responsible for the pandemic.
Incorrect: The virus WIV-1 studied in the Montana NIAID lab in 2018 is unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, a different coronavirus that is a distant relative of WIV-1.
Inadequate support: The scientific publication describing the experiments conducted on the virus WIV-1 in Montana in 2018 explained that the researchers used synthetic viral particles that they produced locally. There is no indication that some viral particles were shipped from Wuhan.
In June 2023, Fox News anchor Jesse Watters took over the primetime slot formerly occupied by Tucker Carlson. During his tenure at Fox News, Carlson repeatedly made inaccurate claims about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines.
Watters appears to follow the same modus operandi. An excerpt of his 1 November 2023 primetime show, which he posted on his Facebook page showed him claiming there was a connection between U.S. coronavirus research and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the claim in the excerpt, which received more than 380,000 views, is based on inaccurate or unsubstantiated assumptions. We review its central claims below.
Claim 1 (Inaccurate):
“Fauci frankensteined Covid bats on our soil a year before the pandemic, but then acted all shocked when the virus started spreading” […] “Lock Fauci up, lock everybody up in Montana that is responsible […] let’s just try to save as many lives as possible”.
The language in this claim, which is present in the video’s caption, implies that former U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director Anthony Fauci oversaw U.S. research on bats that is connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Watters, the animal rights group White Coat Waste Project, which shared misinformation about Fauci in the past, had uncovered documents describing coronavirus research done in Montana using Egyptian fruit bats.
The study does describe research on coronavirus involving the Egyptian fruit bats Rousettus aegyptiacus and carried out at the NIAID laboratory in Hamilton, Montana. However, a closer reading of the study shows that Watters’ claim is inaccurate.
Van Doremalen et al. worked on a virus called WIV-1. WIV-1 is a coronavirus that was identified in 2013 and had sparked interest at the time because of a certain level of similarity to SARS-CoV-1, the virus responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2003. However, a comparison of the two viruses’ genomes shows that WIV-1 is different from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic[3-5].
Phylogenetic trees, which illustrate the evolutionary distance between organisms, indicate that WIV-1 is not a direct ancestor or even a close relative of SARS-CoV-2 (see Figure 1 below). It is instead more closely related to SARS-CoV-1. The bat coronavirus RaTG13 is the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2 to date.
Figure 1 – Phylogenetic tree based on whole genome comparisons of betacoronaviruses. In a phylogenetic tree, the closer two viruses are on the tree, the more related they are. The group of viruses more closely related to SARS-CoV-1 is highlighted in blue. SARS-CoV-1 variants have been highlighted in dark blue. The group of viruses more closely related to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is highlighted in red. SARS-CoV-2 variants are highlighted in dark red and bold. Note that the closest relative of SARS-CoV-2 is the bat virus RaTG13 and how WIV-1 is more distantly related to SARS-CoV-2, and actually closer to SARS-CoV-1. Source: Hu et al.
Phylogenetic analysis showed that the most recent common ancestor between RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2 dates back fifty years ago[6,7]. RaTG13 shares 96% of genetic identity with SARS-CoV-2. But scientists deemed that even 4% of genetic differences was too large of a gap to be bridged by lab experiments.
So, we know that SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13 diverged fifty years ago and that lab experiments on RaTG13 could not lead to SARS-CoV-2. And we know that WIV-1 is more distantly related to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13 is. This means that SARS-CoV-2 and WIV-1 are separated by at least five decades of evolution. This genomic evidence invalidates the implication in Watters’ video title that the research on WIV-1 conducted in Montana was connected to the pandemic.
Claim 2 (Unsupported):
“In 2018, Fauci’s goons went to the Wuhan lab, bottled up a virus and brought it to a lab in America” ; “Grabbed a dozen Egyptian fruit bats, threw them in the back of a van”
Watters also claimed that the researchers involved in the 2018 study imported the WIV-1 virus from Wuhan, and captured and transported Egyptian fruit bats with a reckless disregard for biosafety and animal welfare (by transporting them “in the back of a van”).
While it is true that WIV-1 was first isolated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (hence the initials WIV), nothing indicates that Van Doramalen and colleagues actually shipped the viral particles from Wuhan.
The Materials and Methods section of Van Doremalen et al. explains that the viral particles of WIV-1 used in the study were produced locally, using a method described in a previous publication by Menachery et al.
Menachery et al. explained that the viruses used for their study are a “synthetic construction” using a “published sequence”. The Acknowledgments section also mentions that Menachery et al. obtained information and material from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but not the virus particles themselves.
Furthermore, Van Doremalen et al. specified in their Materials and Methods section that “Animal experiments were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories (ASP 2016-021E, 05/2016)”. Such committees oversee animal use activity and animal research facilities to ensure the welfare of animals used in research. Nothing indicates that the bats were rounded up and thrown “in the back of a van”, as Watters claimed.
Additional context: understanding the rationale for scientific research on WIV-1
Conspiracy theories surrounding the origin of SARS-CoV-2 have circulated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rooted in some of these theories is the belief held by some that dangerous or inappropriate research on coronaviruses was the cause of the pandemic. This belief has also served as the basis for calls to curtail funding for coronavirus research.
However, a look at history can help us understand why such research is being pursued by scientists. In 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-1, spread rapidly across Asia and claimed more than 700 lives in a few months. Scientific evidence so far strongly indicates that SARS-CoV-1 originated from bats, spilled over to an intermediate host (possibly civets), and then to humans. Later research showed that bats hosted many other SARS-like viruses[9,10], leading to concerns that there could be other potentially deadly coronaviruses lurking around. If such a coronavirus was capable of also causing a pandemic, a spillover event into humans could be disastrous.
In order to address this looming threat, researchers stepped up their efforts to discover and understand existing bat coronaviruses that resembled SARS-CoV-1. At first, it appeared that SARS-like bat coronaviruses identified by scientists were unable to infect human cells using the human protein ACE-2, contrary to SARS-CoV-1. Thus, these coronaviruses were considered to pose little threat to humans.
But this understanding changed when scientists discovered WIV-1, which showed it could directly infect human cells[2,8]. This explains why WIV-1 became a topic of research. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. When facing a possible threat, it makes sense to study the threat so that one may act to defend oneself. Far from being frivolous research pursued by fringe scientists, as some may like to believe, the choice to study WIV-1 was justified by scientists’ earlier discoveries about bat coronaviruses.
- 1 – Van Doremalen et al. (2018) SARS-Like Coronavirus WIV1-CoV Does Not Replicate in Egyptian Fruit Bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus). Viruses
- 2 – Ge et al. (2013) Isolation and characterization of a bat SARS-like coronavirus that uses the ACE2 receptor. Nature
- 3 – Hussain et al. (2020) Evolutionary and structural analysis of SARS-CoV-2 specific evasion of host immunity. Genes & Immunity
- 4 – Hu et al. (2021) Characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. Nature reviews microbiology
- 5 – Junejo et al. (2020) Novel SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19: Origin, pathogenesis, genes and genetic variations, immune responses and phylogenetic analysis. Gene reports
- 6 – Boni et al. (2020) Evolutionary origins of the SARS-CoV-2 sarbecovirus lineage responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Nature microbiology
- 7 – Voskarides (2022) SARS-CoV-2: tracing the origin, tracking the evolution. BMC medical genomics
- 8 – Menachery et al. (2016) SARS-like WIV1-CoV poised for human emergence. PNAS
- 9 – Drexler et al. (2014) Ecology, evolution and classification of bat coronaviruses in the aftermath of SARS. Antiviral research
- 10 – Li et al. (2005) Bats are natural reservoirs of SARS-like coronaviruses. Science
- 11 – Ren et al. (2008) Difference in Receptor Usage between Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Coronavirus and SARS-Like Coronavirus of Bat Origin. Journal of virology