Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, was first reported in June 13, 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Like SARS 1, which was first reported in Guangdong Province, China in late 2002, and SARS 2, which was first reported in China in 2019, MERS was a “betacoronavirus.”

Isolation of a Novel Coronavirus from a Man with Pneumonia in Saudi Arabia

Coincidentally or not, in April 2012, six people fell ill in a copper mine full of bats in Mojiang County, Yunnan Province, China. The first obvious point to note is that the two areas are too far apart for the virus to have spread naturally by bats or other intermediary hosts over this great of a distance between April and June of 2012. The distance between the two areas is about 5986 kilometers “as the crow flies.” If the MERS virus moved from this mine shaft to Saudi Arabia, it moved with human assistance.

According to Taiwan News, the workers in the copper mine were “scrubbing a copper seam clean of bat feces in April 2012. Weeks later, they were admitted to a hospital in the provincial capital of Kunming with persistent coughs, fevers, head and chest pains and breathing difficulties. Three eventually died.” The Master’s Thesis of Li Xu of Kumming Medical University first discussed the illnesses of the six workers.

From a paper published by Shi Zhengli in 2016, she and a team that she directed began testing bats for coronaviruses in this mine shaft as early as August, 2012. The August 2012 date is important because it is past the April 2012 date when MERS was first observed in Saudia Arabia.

On April 24, 2021, however, the Daily Mail reported that Shi Zhengli was part of a Chinese military project to categorize viruses that began “nine years ago.” Nine years prior to April 24, 2021 is of course April 24, 2012. It seems like the Daily Mail should be aware of the implication of their language and their publication date.

Findings of Shi Zhengli published in February 2016 imply that the coronavirus associated with Saudi Arabian MERS could have originated in this mine shaft in China. There appears to be a major delay in the publication of this study between 2012-2016 for an unexplained reason. Further, they described one new betacoronavirus as “SARS-related.” I suppose that could mean pretty much any betacoronavirus, but it also could have meant the virus associated with MERS. Also noteworthy, the authors also found other betacoronaviruses which they did not describe as “SARS-related.” The introduction of the study states: “…the surveillance identified two unclassified betacoronaviruses, one new strain of SARS-like coronavirus, and one potentially new betacoronavirus species.” The authors did not elaborate on why they would describe the SARS-like virus as a “coronavirus” in the introduction, and list it as a betacoronavirus in their Table.

A summary of viruses collected from bats in a Yunnan Province copper mine shaft.  One was "SARS-related" but unnamed.

After the first SARS outbreak in 2002, scientists began searching for the origin of the betacoronavirus which spread to humans. Civets, a type of cat, were at one point believed to be responsible for spreading the disease. Much of Shi Zhengli’s research has been focused on proving that betacoronaviruses are naturally hosted in bats. Bats can in theory infect intermediary hosts like civets which could spread the disease to humans. Of course in theory, a human could deliberately infect a civet. Point being, betacoronaviruses have been mutating in bat caves for a long time and bats are the original and natural reservoirs of betacoronaviruses. Rats also tend to have large amounts of betacoronavirus, which is logical because rats live in caves with bats.

None of the language in Zhengli’s study is a “smoking gun” on MERS. It’s simply questionable language under the circumstances considering the delay in publication and the Daily Mail report about China’s virus classification program.

Efforts were taken in Saudi Arabia to capture and test bats in 2012-2013. EcoHealth Alliance, recently in the news for their government-funded research partnership with Wuhan Institute of Technology, was part of the team that collected bats in Saudi Arabia. Columbia University and the Ministry of Health of Saudi Arabia also participated in the study with EcoHealth Alliance.

Bat sampling locations in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and 2013 after Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)

The team found 1 bat dropping with a “MERS novel coronavirus.”

The team didn’t seem to think much about the one bat with “MERS novel coronavirus,” however. “We sampled only a small sample of bats in Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, given the rarity of MERS CoV sequences detected by our survey and the broad distribution of MERS cases throughout the Middle East, we speculate that there are probably other hosts. Future work should investigate additional bat and other wildlife species and domestic animals for CoV infection and potential linkage to human disease.” Future research focused on camels as the intermediary host of MERS between bats and humans.

What seems most interesting between SARS 2 and MERS in China and Saudi Arabia is the common denominator of EcoHealth Alliance.

The Daily Mail reported that a Chinese military effort to identify viruses began around 2012, when EcoHealth was in Saudi Arabia collecting coronaviruses, and Shi Zhengli was in China collecting coronaviruses. Assuming the Daily Mail article is accurate, could the “Chinese” military project have involved EcoHealth Alliance? Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance, and Shi Zhengli have co-authored several papers over the years, beginning (I think) in 2005, when they first published important research after SARS 1 that bats were the natural reservoirs of coronaviruses.

In February 2016 Shi Zhengli published the results of her 2012 study of the copper mine shaft in Yunnan Province China, where the workers were sickened. These appear to be all Chinese authors. Shortly after this publication, in August 2016 Peter Daszak announced a private effort to collect and categorize all of the world’s viruses. They called it the Global Virome Project. Although I haven’t found anything stating that Shi Zhengli is officially a part of the Global Virome Project, it seems likely given the nature of Daszak and Zhengli’s research papers over the years. Importantly, Zhengli travelled to Pakistan in December 2016. China and Pakistan have been reported to have biological research agreements. Zhengli could have been an ambassador to Pakistan to acquire their research and provide it to the Global Virome Project.

The Global Virome Project is a Global Project in membership. At the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Conference Center in Italy in August 2016 when the project was announced, we see attendees of United States Agency for International Development (USAID), EcoHealth Alliance, Merck, the World Health Organization (WHO), Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of Biodefense Research Resources and Translational Research, NIAID, National Institutes of Health, the United Nations, and others.

Villa Serbelloni Rockefelle,r Global Virome Project, EcoHealth Alliance World Health Organization, National Institute of Health

Reuters reported on June 9, 2021 that “Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has urged China to release information about six labourers who fell ill after working in a mine in Yunnan province in 2012, and are now seen as a key part of efforts to find the origins of COVID-19.” Reuters didn’t give a date or a quote for the comment.

The origins of MERS and SARS 2 raise questions for further investigation. In addition to pressuring China, Fauci should press the US government agencies and private research entities to reveal all relevant details of their collaboration in the Global Virome Project, closely associated with EcoHealth Alliance.

Charles Wright