The grant application submitted in 2018 was leaked to the Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team (DRASTIC), a pandemic origins analysis group.
Controversial British zoologist and EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak submitted the grant application proposal for the study on behalf of a group that also includes the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.
The application states that the group planned to compile sequence data from a panel of closely related strains of viruses, compare full-length genomes and scan for unique single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that represent sequencing errors. Consensus candidate genomes will then be synthesized commercially using established techniques to recover recombinant viruses.
In the proposal, scientists said that they wanted to genetically enhance airborne coronaviruses and release aerosols containing "novel chimeric spike proteins" among cave bats in China, as well as other coronaviruses to infect humans by introducing "human-specific cleavage sites" to bat coronaviruses.
The idea is to discover the risks posed by coronaviruses, as well as find ways of preventing outbreaks by vaccinating bats against illnesses. This would result in a virus that has no clear ancestor in nature. (Related: Virus expert at Wuhan lab denies COVID-19 lab leak theory.)
The World Health Organization (WHO) expert who has looked into the file says that "if such a method had been carried out, it could explain the lack of close matches for SARS-CoV-2 in nature."
The virus that has spurred the pandemic does not have any close matches. The closest known naturally occurring virus is the Banal-52 strain, and it only shares 96.8 percent of the COVID-19 genome. A direct ancestor should share about 99.98 percent of genomes. The WHO expert says the process detailed in the application could create a new sequence that would not 100 percent match anything.
Based on the proposal, the group would synthesize the viral genome from the computer sequence, creating a virus that does not exist in nature but looks just as natural because it is the average of natural viruses. The team would then put the virus RNA in a cell, where it can be recovered.
The proposal had been rejected and the database of viral strains at the WIV had been taken offline about 18 months later, making it impossible to check what the team had been working on. Scientists at the WIV have denied creating the coronavirus in their lab.
According to experts, creating an "ideal" average virus could have been part of a work to create a vaccine that is effective across all kinds of coronaviruses.
Files obtained as part of a Freedom of Information request have shown that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved a $3.3 million grant for EcoHealth Alliance to look into bat coronaviruses in 2014
A recently unearthed footage of a 2017 conference also showed Daszak talking about how his "work on coronaviruses in China" was conducted with White House funding through the NIH.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who leads the NIH's National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has repeatedly denied in congressional testimony that any U.S. funding went to gain-of-function research at the WIV.
Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, has studied the papers and says that the scientists who performed the construction of the virus in Wuhan have confirmed that the resulting viruses could infect human cells.
DRASTIC is asking whether or not the research happened in light of the lab-leak theory, which former President Donald Trump supported himself.
The problem with those opposing the lab-leak theory is that they will always say there is a need for more evidence. Scientists are afraid of discussing the issue due to the political situation in the U.S., leaving a small and vocal minority of scientists free to spread information.
"Given that we find in this proposal a discussion of the planned introduction of human-specific cleavage sites, a review by the wider scientific community of the plausibility of artificial insertion is warranted," says DRASTIC.
Read more updates about the coronavirus pandemic at Pandemic.news.