Pfizer has admitted it ‘engineered’ mutated Covid viruses in lab tests to ensure its vaccine and drugs remained effective against new variants – but the company denies the experiments posed a risk to the public.
In a press release sneaked out on Friday night, the pharma giant finally responded to an undercover video that went viral last week in which a supposed director at the firm claimed the company was exploring ‘directed evolution’ research on monkeys to make the virus ‘more potent’.
Jordon Trishton Walker, who appears to have been a senior staffer in Pfizer’s research and development division, was caught making the explosive claim in a sting by the right-wing activist group Project Veritas.
Pfizer flatly denied conducting gain of function or directed evolution research on monkeys but admitted that ‘in a limited number of cases’ it altered the virus and tested new mutations against its Covid antiviral drug Paxlovid in Petri dishes.
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Project Veritas released a video that shows alleged Pfizer executive Jordon Trishton Walker revealing that they are exploring a way to mutate COVID in order to create more vaccines
The New York-based firm claims the experiments are essential to get ahead of drug-resistant strains and says similar tests are carried out by ‘many companies and academic institutions in the US and around the world’.
But DailyMail.com spoke to several independent virologists and epidemiologists who were split about whether Pfizer’s experiments posed a risk to the public.
Professor Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has been an outspoken advocate of the lab leak theory, the idea Covid escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
He told DailyMail.com that Pfizer’s press release ‘unequivocally’ indicates that ‘Pfizer and its collaborators performed… high-risk gain-of-function research and enhanced potential pandemic pathogens research’.
But Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading in the UK, told this website: ‘I don’t find it [Pfizer’s statement] alarming for a number of reasons.’
Paxlovid works by blocking the virus from releasing an enzyme crucial for Covid to replicate when it enters the body, known as the 3CL protease, explained Professor Jones.
Scientists work at the Pfizer vaccine research and development facility in Pearl River, New York
The research lab – located around 20 miles from New York – is the company’s only biosafety level three (BSL-3) lab out of its nine major research and development sites in the US and UK
He said Pfizer’s experiments involve looking at ‘what changes to the sequence of the protease gene would be necessary to make the virus no longer sensitive to the drug’.
‘So they make a range of mutations in the virus, led by computational predictions, and then culture that mutated virus in the drug to see if indeed it is no longer sensitive and if so by what degree,’ he added.
‘Many of the mutants they make will not do anything, but some could make a Paxlovid-resistant virus. The risk would be that this could escape and spread, making the drug useless.
‘My point is that such a virus remains unaltered in every other way, so the overall risk [of the virus being able to infect people and leaking from the lab] is very small.’
Professor Jones said this tiny risk is outweighed by the benefit of ‘being ahead’ of the virus’ evolution in nature.
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia in the UK, also told DailyMail.com: ‘The press release doesn’t cause me too much concern.
‘To me, it doesn’t look like Pfizer is doing anything that isn’t being done by many other groups.
‘Also, from the press release, Pfizer is only modeling mutations that are already spreading in the population, so not creating new viruses.’
Pfizer’s response was released at 8pm on Friday and was buried in a busy news cycle. It came three days after the Project Veritas video was released and unleashed a frenzy on social media.
Mr Walker was labeled in the video as Pfizer’s Director of Research and Development, Strategic Operations and mRNA Scientific Planning.
DailyMail.com could not verify that Mr Walker was in fact employed in that position at the company and Pfizer has not responded to several requests for comment in the past week.
Pfizer flatly denied conducting gain of function or directed evolution research on monkeys but admitted that ‘in a limited number of cases’ it altered the virus and tested new mutations against its Covid antiviral drug Paxlovid in Petri dishes
No verifiable profile of Jordon Walker on LinkedIn appears to exist on LinkedIn, only profiles imitating him. But DailyMail.com discovered that a man named Jordon Walker holds an active Pfizer email address.
And a job titled Director, Research and Development and mRNA Scientific Strategy does exist at the company, which is similar to the title Mr Walker is said to hold.
A job description posted last October suggests the role mainly involves business development rather than scientific experiments.
The ad said the successful candidate would be involved in ‘developing the strategic vision for mRNA technology at Pfizer’ and ‘identifying and prioritizing opportunities to deliver innovative medicines across Pfizer’s portfolio and advancing these priorities in collaboration with Pfizer’s Chief Scientific Officers’.
The post was also at the Pfizer Pearl River R&D facility, a research lab around 20 miles from New York.
It is the company’s only biosafety level three (BSL-3) lab out of its nine major research and development sites in the US and UK.
BSL-3 labs are authorized to handle dangerous pathogens. Experiments at these labs often involve tinkering with animal viruses to advance treatments and vaccines that could be used in a future outbreak.
In BSL-3 labs, researchers do all experiments in a ‘biosafety cabinet’ — an enclosed, ventilated workspace for handling materials contaminated with pathogens.
Work on the live virus that causes Covid must be carried out at a BSL-3 or BSL-4 lab.
Gain-of-function research involves tinkering with viruses to make them more lethal or infectious – hoping to get ahead of a future outbreak and develop treatments. It is about giving proteins enhanced activity.
In the original Project Veritas video, Walker begs the journalist not to tell anyone and then shares that the way they would mutate the virus would be by infecting monkeys
This type of research was largely restricted in the US until 2017, when the National Institutes of Health began to allow it to take place using government funds.
Previously it had been halted from 2014 to 2017 over concerns that it could lead to the inadvertent creation of a pandemic.
Directed evolution is a method of designing proteins with desirable functions, and is a basic and common process used in biology.
It is intended to imitate the process of natural selection, and can be performed in living organisms – such as monkeys – or in vitro (in cells).
Pfizer denies doing either in relation to its Covid vaccine but said it carries out ‘in vitro resistance selection experiments’ on its antiviral drug Paxlovid.
In vitro resistance selection experiments involve predicting how a virus will mutate as it develops resistance to treatments.
Pfizer said it does modify the Covid virus to produce the spike protein of the new variants that have been found and flagged by health authorities.
If Pfizer were conducting gain of function or directed evolution experiments on the Covid virus, their purpose was to test if the virus can develop to resist nirmatrelvir – the patented half of the Paxlovid medication.
Pfizer’s release does not refer to Project Veritas or the alleged employee Mr Walker.
It reads: ‘Allegations have recently been made related to gain of function and directed evolution research at Pfizer and the company would like to set the record straight.
A follow-up video was released days after the first shows the Project Veritas team confronting Mr Walker at a diner
Mr Walker hits the team’s iPad out of their hands and it smashes when the confrontation turns physical
‘In the ongoing development of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, Pfizer has not conducted gain of function or directed evolution research.’
But the company does admit using the original Covid strain to express the spike protein of new variants of concern to test its vaccine.
‘This work is undertaken once a new variant of concern has been identified by public health authorities.’
Most scientists endorsed this research because it helped governments assess how effective their vaccine rollouts would hold up against new variants like Omicron and Delta when those variants took off.
But Pfizer made other admissions that have caused concern among some experts.
‘In addition… Pfizer undertakes in vitro work (e.g., in a laboratory culture dish) to identify potential resistance mutations to nirmatrelvir, one of Paxlovid’s two components.
‘With a naturally evolving virus, it is important to routinely assess the activity of an antiviral. Most of this work is conducted using computer simulations or mutations of the main protease–a non-infectious part of the virus.
‘In a limited number of cases when a full virus does not contain any known gain of function mutations, such virus may be engineered to enable the assessment of antiviral activity in cells.
‘In addition, in vitro resistance selection experiments are undertaken in cells incubated with SARS-CoV-2 and nirmatrelvir in our secure biosafety level 3 (BSL3) laboratory to assess whether the main protease can mutate to yield resistant strains of the virus.
‘It is important to note that these studies are required by U.S. and global regulators for all antiviral products and are carried out by many companies and academic institutions in the US and around the world.’
After Project Veritas published their story, US senator Marco Rubio wrote to Pfizer’s CEO and said that if the claims made by Mr Walker are true, Pfizer is ‘putt[ing] its desire for profit over the concern of national and global health’.
He said: ‘Whether it’s gain of function research, or selected structure mutations through directed evolution, as Mr Walker claimed would occur, any effort to make a virus more transmittable and deadlier is careless and dangerous.’
In Project Veritas’ original video, Mr Walker begs the journalist not to tell anyone and then shares that they would mutate the virus by infecting monkeys.
‘One of the things we [Pfizer] are exploring is like, why don’t we just mutate it [Covid] ourselves so we could create — preemptively develop new vaccines, right?
‘So, we have to do that. If we’re gonna do that though, there’s a risk of like, as you could imagine — no one wants to be having a pharma company mutating f–king viruses.’
Walker told the Veritas journalist that the mutation would be done through directed evolution, and the virus can become more potent depending on the scientific experiment performed on it.
‘From what I’ve heard is they are optimizing it, but they’re going slow because everyone is very cautious — obviously, they don’t want to accelerate it too much,’ he said.
‘I think they are also just trying to do it as an exploratory thing because you don’t want to advertise that you are figuring out future mutations.’
Walker then begged the journalist not to tell anyone and proceeded to explain how the experiment would work.
‘Don’t tell anyone. Promise you won’t tell anyone. The way it would work is that we put the virus in monkeys, and we successively cause them to keep infecting each other, and we collect serial samples from them,’ he said.
He then mentioned Wuhan when talking about keeping the virus controlled.
‘You have to be very controlled to make sure that this virus that you mutate doesn’t create something that just goes everywhere,’ he continued. ‘Which, I suspect, is the way that the virus started in Wuhan, to be honest. It makes no sense that this virus popped out of nowhere. It’s bulls–t.’
‘You’re not supposed to do gain-of-function research with viruses. Regularly not. We can do these selected structure mutations to make them more potent. There is research ongoing about that. I don’t know how that is going to work. There better not be any more outbreaks because Jesus Christ,’ he added.
In the video, Walker is also heard talking about the different Covid variants like Delta and Omicron being a ‘cash cow’ for the company.
‘Part of what they want to do is, to some extent, to try to figure out, you know, how there are all these new strains and variants that just pop up,’ he said.
‘So, it’s like trying to catch them before they pop up and we can develop a vaccine prophylactically, like, for new variants. So, that’s why they like, do it controlled in a lab, where they say this is a new epitope, and so if it comes out later on in the public, we already have a vaccine working.’
Walker added that even if it doesn’t work, it’s still a ‘cash cow’ for the company and will continue to be one.
‘Some of the times there are mutations that pop up that we are not prepared for,’ he explained. ‘Like with Delta and Omicron. And things like that. Who knows? Either way, it’s going to be a cash cow. Covid is going to be a cash cow for us for a while going forward. Like obviously.’