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The Nature of Lab Origin Investigations

The Nature of Lab Origin Investigations

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Dr. Anthony Fauci ran NIAID since before I was born. During that time, he overturned the moratorium on gain-of-function research of concern, normalizing the enhancement of potential pandemic pathogens in universities and labs worldwide.

He also appointed some people to positions overseeing research or other NIAID functions, such as Dr. Fauci’s deputy, David Morens. Today, the Covid Select Committee investigating the public health policy response and origins of Covid-19 brought Morens before the committee to testify regarding his undeniable destruction of federal records, with Morens bragging about deleting emails he didn’t want to appear in FOIA’s, telling EcoHealth Alliance president Peter Daszak about FOIA’s to NIH involving EcoHealth Alliance, and helping Daszak craft his letters to NIH.

The mess of conflicts of interests and unethical conduct is appalling, and Morens at one point confessed “I don’t even know what the ethics office does.” It doesn’t surprise me to learn that such a serially unethical person wouldn’t know what the ethics office does, nor that this is the person Dr. Fauci chose to be his deputy.

“I don’t even know what the ethics office does,” said David Morens. Congressional Democrats claimed that these Covid Select inquiries were not getting us closer to understanding the origins of SARS-CoV-2, but I disagree. Photo copied from NR

What did surprise me, however, was hearing some Democrats on the committee claim that this committee has brought another scientist before them without advancing our understanding of Covid origins. It’s strange to hear Congressman Raul Ruiz MD (D-CA) open for the Democrats by saying that the committee’s Democrats believe both zoonotic and laboratory origin scenarios must be taken seriously only to later be undercut by Congresswoman Debbie Dingell’s (D-MI) claims that the committee and investigations of scientists has not advanced our understanding of Covid origins. After all, to take the lab-origin theory seriously, as Dr. Ruiz proposes, one must investigate scientists who conducted relevant research and have bypassed transparency or federal records retention requirements.

Labs are not made up of cattle we test for H5N1, camels we test for MERS-CoV, civets we test for SARS-CoV-1, mosquitoes we test for dengue, or flying foxes we test for Nipah. Labs are made up of scientists, scientists write grants, grants are managed by program managers and risky research is managed by people like Dr. Fauci, the head of NIAID who overturned the moratorium on gain-of-function research of concern in 2017, whose office funded Dr. Peter Daszak’s gain-of-function research of concern on bat SARS-related coronaviruses in Wuhan, and whose deputy was actively colluding with Dr. Daszak on how to break federal records laws and potentially defraud the US government. The nature of labs means that a lab-origin theory must investigate the thoughts and actions of scientists, funders, and everyone in-between, and so to take a lab-origin theory seriously Congress must recognize its unique role and responsibility in this scientific inquiry.

I’m writing this article to provide some independent consultation for the committee on how investigations into scientists, including those aided by the Covid Select Committee, have indeed advanced our scientific understanding of Covid origins and brought us closer to the truth of knowing where SARS-CoV-2 came from. As uncomfortable as it is to disembowel scientists’ thoughts and grants and unethical actions before the world, these investigations are uncovering real insights of scientific value.

Proximal Origins

Let’s go back in time to 2020, when Kristian Andersen first believed a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2 was likely, “80-20” in Eddie Holmes’ estimation, and the authors contacted Dr. Fauci. Independent journalists, empowered by FOIAs, were the ones who learned that Andersen et al. first believed a lab origin was likely and told the NIAID official whose reputation would be undermined if gain-of-function research of concern funded by his agency caused the pandemic. We learned from FOIAs that Dr. Fauci emailed his other deputy, Hugh Auchincloss, after midnight to instruct Hugh that he had many important things to do the next day and needed to keep his phone ready.

We learned that Drs. Fauci, Collins, and Farrar – all funders who advocated for gain-of-function research of concern – didn’t notify then-CDC director Robert Redfield, who opposed gain-of-function research of concern, but they did invite Ron Fouchier, Christian Drosten, and others in an academic lobbying group that advocated for gain-of-function research of concern. For those of us scientists who know these scientists involved, the actions of funders on that fateful Feb 1 call sent a clear signal that he was interested in huddling with lobbyists who also faced significant risks to their reputations if this virus came from research activities they all advocated for.

DEFUSE

Then, of course, there’s the DEFUSE proposal. The DEFUSE proposal is a cornerstone of the lab-origin theory of SARS-CoV-2 that wasn’t voluntarily released by researchers but rather was obtained against the will of the researchers by Charles Rixey and Major Joe Murphy collaborating with a group of internet sleuths called DRASTIC. The 2018 DEFUSE grant by Peter Daszak, Ralph Baric, Linfa Wang, Shi ZhengLi, and others proposed to modify bat SARS-related coronaviruses in precisely the ways SARS-CoV-2 is an anomaly among bat SARS-related coronaviruses, thus providing a very clear research program for lab-origin theories.

Once DEFUSE was released, the lab-origin theory morphed from mere geographical circumstances of a bat SARS-related coronavirus emerging near a bat SARS-related coronavirus lab to something far more significant. The DEFUSE grant focused lab-origin theories to a very concrete set of viruses collected by a clear set of researchers using methods specifically proposed to modify SARS-related coronaviruses in ways that we could test.

For example, the DEFUSE grant proposed to insert a “proteolytic cleavage site” inside a bat SARS-related coronavirus, and while no other SARS-related coronavirus has a proteolytic cleavage site, SARS-CoV-2 does. Second, DEFUSE proposed to resurrect viruses from their genome sequences on a computer and develop ‘reverse genetics systems’ to modify the viruses under study. If researchers wanted to insert a furin cleavage site, they’d need a reverse genetics system, or basically a DNA copy of the RNA virus.

Colleagues and I examined a strange pattern of cutting and pasting sites in the SARS-COV-2 genome consistent with a reverse genetics system. “A strange pattern” is an understatement because we estimated 1 in 50 billion odds of seeing this pattern in nature, yet the pattern is entirely consistent with laboratory methods for resurrecting coronaviruses for downstream modifications, like swapping Spike genes as Hu et al. did in 2017 or adding a furin cleavage site as proposed in DEFUSE. Even more shocking to us, we found the molecular scissors making these scratches in the genome – BsaI and BsmBI – had only ever been used once before on a coronavirus infectious clone, and it was in 2017 by Ben Hu, Peter Daszak, Linfa Wang, and Shi ZhengLi.

In other words, the pattern of cutting and pasting sites in the genome of SARS-CoV-2 is consistent with methods proposed in DEFUSE and it triangulates to the same set of authors who (1) were unique in using these specific enzymes and used them as recently as 2017 and (2) who proposed in 2018 to insert the other site also found in the genome of SARS-CoV-2, the furin cleavage site.

Lab Origin Predictions: 2023

There’s more science on the lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, such as the lack of zoonotic evidence we ought to have obtained by now, followups of important zoonotic-origin studies finding their methods biased, flawed, and wrong, and other niche debates that all continued to tilt the scales towards a lab origin. Many argued that “DEFUSE wasn’t funded” under the assumption that if one agency doesn’t fund work then every other agency will follow suit, yet the DEFUSE PIs who had never before all published a paper together were all together in 2019 on an NIAID call – and grant – studying bat SARS-related coronaviruses in Wuhan.

In other words, it was possible NIAID may have funded this work. In 2023, when the DNI released its unclassified assessment on the origins of Covid-19, lab-origin theory still had some predictions up its sleeve that could only be corroborated or refuted by opening up lab notebooks of researchers involved in this DEFUSE-related program, and all signs pointed towards NIAID.

Unfortunately, efforts to FOIA NIAID have been obstructed by a remarkable lack of transparency from NIH and the NIAID FOIA office. First efforts to FOIA these agencies resulted in hundreds of pages of redactions, followed by lawsuits to provide unredacted versions, followed by unredacted versions that were more embarrassing for NIAID while also revealing the original reasons for redactions were unjustified, such as Fauci’s emails acknowledging that NIAID funded gain-of-function research of concern on SARS-related coronaviruses and that researchers informed him that they believed a lab origin was likely. The poor transparency from NIAID prevented us from learning about the research they were funding in Wuhan in 2019, but it didn’t stop us from continuing the science and forensics of making predictions about what we might find if we could get a glimpse at researchers’ communications from this time period.

First among the lab origin predictions of 2023 relates to discussions of the furin cleavage site. The furin cleavage site technically wasn’t mentioned as a “furin” cleavage site in DEFUSE. Rather, DEFUSE mentions “proteolytic” cleavage sites and there are more proteolytic enzymes of interest than just furin. Additionally, DEFUSE didn’t mention where the furin cleavage site would be inserted, yet SARS-CoV-2 has the furin cleavage site precisely in between the S1 and S2 subunits of the Spike protein, so lab-origin theory following the DEFUSE thread would predict there exists communications between researchers in this group discussing insertion of “furin” cleavage sites in the S1/S2 junction of the S gene.

Additionally, our finding of the “BsaI/BsmBI” map of SARS-CoV-2 being anomalous among wild coronaviruses yet consistent with a reverse genetics system lent itself to predictions. The cutting/pasting sites in SARS-CoV-2 allow the virus to be assembled in 6 segments, so under the lab-origin theory we would predict researchers studying SARS-related coronaviruses in Wuhan to have communications discussing “6-segment assembly” and mentioning the specific enzymes producing such an Frankenstein-looking pattern in the SARS-CoV-2 genome.

Finally, researchers in the “DEFUSE wasn’t funded” camp also pointed to the statement of work in the finalized DEFUSE grant saying that insertion of furin cleavage sites would be conducted in Ralph Baric’s BSL-3 lab in UNC, far from Wuhan, where SARS-CoV-2 emerged with a furin cleavage site. Under a lab-origin theory, we’d predict some discussions to do this work in Wuhan, not UNC.

Now, if only NIAID had ethical public servants, we could examine their communications with the DEFUSE collaborators in 2019 and either corroborate or find communications inconsistent with the lab-origin theory. The lab-origin theory needed more data, and that data would come from scientists’ closely guarded lab notebooks, hard drives, and email inboxes.

DEFUSE Drafts

In early 2024, a miracle of science occurred whose full statistical significance is not easily appreciated by people who are not being provided impartial consultations on Covid origins. Emily Kopp at US Right to Know obtained a draft of DEFUSE via a FOIA that wasn’t evaded by NIAID officials because it was a FOIA of USGS collaborators listed on the DEFUSE grant. Without Fauci’s FOIA lady to enter typos and redact critical sections, we finally obtained a more immediate and unfettered, transparent look into the minds of DEFUSE researchers as they made the DEFUSE grant and conceived the research they wanted to do.

In this draft of DEFUSE, all three lab-origin predictions mentioned above came true, resulting in overwhelming corroboration not only of the general non-natural origin theory, but also the specific theory that whoever made SARS-CoV-2 in 2019 had read DEFUSE, and Occam’s razor might suggest it would also be the people who wrote DEFUSE, who wanted to do this work in 2018, and who had NIAID funding in 2019 (in addition to Chinese Academy of Sciences funding and other sources).

The drafts of DEFUSE specifically mention “furin” cleavage sites and propose to insert them in the S1/S2 junction of the S gene, or a narrow few-dozen base-pair window in a 3,600 base-pair gene, exactly where the furin cleavage site is found in SARS-CoV-2. Manhattan is about 262 blocks from N to S, so probabilistically what happened with DEFUSE specifying precisely where to insert this furin cleavage site would be like finding a big blue building on the 120th block of Manhattan and then finding a proposal to make a big blue building on that exact same block. Clearly, the proposal and the product are connected, even if we don’t know who was holding the paintbrush during construction.

Additionally, the drafts of DEFUSE propose “6-segment assembly” and include order forms for the enzyme BsmBI. Out of the thousands of restriction enzymes that could’ve been listed, the researchers listed precisely one of the two generating the synthetic-looking pattern in the genome of SARS-CoV-2. For those who criticized our work as cherry-picking BsmBI, how do they explain Daszak and colleagues then ordering precisely this enzyme, BsmBI, in the drafts of DEFUSE? The blue building has mahogany floors, and in this same draft of a grant, we also have an order form for mahogany floorboards.

Finally, in a comment on the side of the grant, Peter Daszak highlighted text of key research methodologies and told Ralph Baric and Shi ZhengLi:

Ralph, Zhengli. If we win this contract, I do not propose that all of this work will necessarily be conducted by Ralph, but I do want to stress the US side of this proposal so that DARPA are comfortable with our team…Once we get the funds, we can then allocate who does what exact work, and I believe that a lot of these assays can be done in Wuhan as well…

While some claimed plans for the blue building with mahogany floors on the 120th block could’ve been referring to either Manhattan or Los Angeles, the comments on the blueprint specify Manhattan, so these plans correspond exactly, in every way we can verify, to the anomalous thing whose origin we were investigating.

The finalized DEFUSE grant Peter Daszak and colleagues sent to the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency said they would do risky research in safer UNC labs on US soils, but Daszak’s intentions during the drafting of the proposal, which he knew would make DAPRA uncomfortable, were to allocate more of the assays to Wuhan.

In this slow epistemological pot set to boil, it’s easy to be the frog that never notices how much things have changed. In January 2020, we saw mass media dissemination of a paper calling a lab origin “implausible” and amplified by Fauci, Farrar, and Collins without disclosing their involvement in the paper or their funding of Daszak’s DEFUSE collaborators whose 2018 grant is a blueprint for SARS-CoV-2. Daszak and Farrar went further to publish a paper in the Lancet calling lab-origin theories “conspiracy theories” and Daszak obstructed at least three official investigations into the origins of the virus by not recusing himself and by appointing similarly conflicted friends onto panels of “independent experts.” We also had Fauci et al. encourage the US government to censor mentions of a non-natural origin of Covid as disinformation.

Then, in 2021, Major Joe Murphy and Charles Rixey obtained DEFUSE, the grant proposing to make a virus like SARS-CoV-2, and SARS-CoV-2 was consistent with a research product of DEFUSE-related work in every way scientists could check at the time, so we made predictions while investigative journalists filed lawsuits and FOIAs to get documents and test our theory. While the NIAID racket was violating federal records laws we continued searching from every angle available to a motley crew of scientists, journalists, and citizens. This lab-origin research, completely unfunded by NIAID and NIH, battling groups like Andersen et al. heavily funded by NIAID and NIH and closely tied with Fauci, guided the investigations of journalists who were brave enough to investigate scientists. Sure enough, FOIA’d drafts of DEFUSE contained highly specific methodological details, precisely those predicted by the lab-origin theory.

My, how the temperature has changed. The epistemological pot is now at a full boil and evidence overwhelmingly suggests SARS-CoV-2 originated from a lab. To take a lab-origin theory seriously is to become acquainted not just with the many pieces of evidence, but their statistical significance or weights. There is no smoking gun, or if there was it was DEFUSE, but instead there are many many straws that broke a camel’s back long ago, and now there’s just a massive pile of evidential hay presumably with a camel buried underneath.

Covid Select Committee’s Hidden FIPV Gem

There’s even more insight and corroboration gained from recent testimonies than many may realize. The specific furin cleavage site in SARS-CoV-2 is comprised of the amino acid sequence PRRAR, which early (now rebutted) efforts to shut down a lab-origin theory called a “non-canonical” furin cleavage site, claiming a different sequence – RKRR – is more “canonical.” However, these claims of canonical-or-not overlooked that the specific furin cleavage site found in SARS-CoV-2 is also found in a highly specific type of feline coronaviruses (FIPV).

That’s odd, because the DEFUSE PI Ralph Baric, in his transcribed testimony to the Covid Select Committee, gave some clarification about their thinking in writing DEFUSE. It was curious that DEFUSE proposed inserting a furin cleavage site in a SARS-related coronavirus because that had never been seen before – why make something that’s never been seen before in nature? As DRASTIC member Yuri Deigin pointed out on Medium, in Ralph Baric’s testimony before the Covid Select Committee, he was comfortable and frank, and Dr. Baric said the group found inspiration from the FIPV coronaviruses – the exact group of coronaviruses previously found to have PRRAR.

So no longer is the specific sequence in the furin cleavage site “non-canonical,” as a DEFUSE PI has admitted in Congressional testimony that they were inspired by FIPVs, the same tiny clade of viruses known to have this exact sequence of furin cleavage site.

A famous quote in biology says that “everything in biology makes sense in light of evolution,” but that only applies to the Origin of Species not engineered by man. Everything about the unusual genome of SARS-CoV-2 makes sense in light of DEFUSE.

Taking Lab-Origin Theory Seriously Requires Opening Lab Notebooks, Comms

From the S1/S2 placement of the Spike’s furin cleavage site or the PRRAR sequence found in feline coronaviruses purring in the mind of Ralph Baric, to the New England Bioscience order forms for the enzyme “BsmBI” and off-the-record discussions to offshore work to Wuhan, lab-origin theory has made significant advances in our understanding of Covid origins by further investigating the activities and communications of a very small group of researchers who proposed all of these things in 2018 and received funding from NIAID in 2019 before the head of NIAID obfuscated the evidence of a lab origin in 2020.

Taking the lab-origin theory seriously requires becoming familiar with the lines of inquiry of lab-origin theory, and those lines of inquiry of lab-origin theory focus on very specific research programs and proposals, researchers and their preferred methods, the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and any signs of unnatural or anomalous features that are incidentally found in research proposals, and more. Rather than focus on the migrations of birds with highly pathogenic avian influenza or the movements of bats with Hendra virus, lab-origin theory focuses on the movements and funding and proposals and actions and reagents of researchers.

When we combine all of these pieces of evidence using methods from forensics, methods also commonly employed in theoretical ecology and evolution to examine the Origins of Species besides SARS-CoV-2, it is overwhelmingly likely that SARS-CoV-2 originated in the lab. That, again, is an understatement if we’re looking at the raw numbers. By most analytic standards, we would use the language “nearly certain” to describe the estimated likelihood that this virus originated from a lab inspired by DEFUSE. Evolution does not read grants or select ideas from the literature, and so evolution would never care to make a virus in 2019 so perfectly described by researchers’ 2018 goals.

Just because the virus is overwhelmingly likely to have originated in the lab, however, doesn’t mean all scientists everywhere are all equally aware of what was happening and equally guilty of a coverup, and that’s what we need help disentangling both to know the truth and to clear names and preserve larger scientific institutions. There is still a lot we don’t know, a lot we can learn, and a lot of scientists whose names we can clear off the list of research-related suspects with proper investigations, yet ironically our efforts to clear names and preserve institutions are being obstructed by a group of co-conspirators affiliated with NIAID.

For example, it’s possible David Morens doesn’t actually know what Peter Daszak’s colleagues did in Wuhan. Morens may act out of loyalty to Peter Daszak and trust in his friend’s version of events without actually knowing relevant details that would lead a subject matter expert like myself to believe a lab origin is overwhelmingly likely. Morens is clearly an idiot, but he may just be a loyal idiot and nothing more. Or, he may know what Daszak was doing in 2019 and be a witting accomplice in the biggest conspiracy in human history, and only his deleted federal records could help us uncover that.

It’s even possible, although with low confidence I find it unlikely, that even Daszak himself didn’t know what the Wuhan Institute of Virology was doing. It’s possible the PLA saw the DEFUSE grant and went ahead with it in a classified venue that Daszak would never hear about, or it’s possible the WIV collaborators Shi ZhengLi and Ben Hu proceeded with the work’s first steps but hadn’t had time to report back to Peter Daszak by the time the outbreak exploded – after all, lab work takes time, and labs don’t typically tell their collaborators abroad everything they do every day but rather wait until they have some results to trigger a discussion.

Daszak not knowing what happened wouldn’t explain his uncommonly unethical behavior, from his failure to turn in his 2019 progress report on time to his marginalizing publications calling lab-origin theories “conspiracy theories” to his obstruction of Covid origins investigations left and right. However, some people are furtive and untrustworthy even when they haven’t done anything wrong, so we have to leave open the possibility of Daszak’s innocence. There are other possibilities as well, yet all of these possibilities originate from the common ancestor of somebody reading DEFUSE, most likely somebody who also helped write DEFUSE.

These are all really uncomfortable questions about the innocence or guilt of specific colleagues in an accident that killed 20 million people, their witting or unwitting participation in a coverup to protect the reputations of NIH, NIAID, and Wellcome Trust leaders, and their assisting the Chinese government’s efforts to sow doubt about the origins of the virus. These are uncomfortable questions, but they are precisely the questions we and our representatives have to ask if we are to take the lab-origin theories seriously.

Contrary to what some Democrats on the Covid Select Committee said today, investigations into scientists and science funders have led to unparalleled advances in our understanding of the origins of SARS-CoV-2. The findings of the plans for a figurative blue building with mahogany floors on the 120th block of Manhattan came from searching for blueprints, not sampling animals. Along the trail of evidence paved by DEFUSE, we have found glowing pieces of the Covid origins puzzle, and each of these pieces was found by turning over stones of researchers’ emails, communications with funders, grants, and more.

We’ve even found one piece – the FIPV inspiration purring in Baric’s mind – by bringing a scientist to testify before Congress. We’ve found additional evidence of a conspiracy to evade federal records laws, and that has been the main obstacle to continuing our research to a possible lab origin. NIAID has funded others to sample animals, but they unlawfully refuse to let us sample federal records, not to mention they refuse to find this line of research.

In addition to specific questions on the forensic trail of SARS-CoV-2 origins, the biggest question on my mind for the purpose of oversight and policy is why this investigation is being left to sleuths like Charles Rixey, Major Joe Murphy, DRASTIC, unfunded researchers like myself and my colleagues, investigative journalists pursuing FOIAs, and now Congress using subpoenas and Congressional testimony to learn about the inner feline mind of Ralph Baric. While researchers at the heart of Covid origins may feel like they are sheep being eaten alive by an anarchic pack of investigative wolves, and their feelings are accurate as we devour their gmails and uncover their secrets, the real question is why were there no formal criminal investigations into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 that could allow this task to be completed by trusted and qualified professionals.

When the qualified professionals at the FBI have moderate confidence in a lab origin, why is the DOJ not pursuing this further not just to uncover the truth but also, equally important, to formally clear the names of researchers who cooperate fully with investigations and for whom the full powers of the FBI’s investigators privately reading through communications and other information could yield no evidence consistent with the researchers’ knowledge of or participation in the creation of SARS-CoV-2? Is there not a more civil way to do this, or has the incivility of NIAID’s unaccounted-for unlawful efforts to defraud the US government, possibly other agencies’ investigative teams, made this barbaric consumption of researchers’ records and life histories an inevitability to unbottle the inescapable truth?

This historic task is left to all of us investigative wolves. While we try to be polite while blood drips from our fangs and we sniff through emails for organs of insight, the sad reality is that a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, if taken seriously, involves a lab, a lab run by scientists, scientists funded by governments and non-profits and private industry, and these people hold immense institutional power and influence in the world that they appear to be using to obstruct our hunt.

Many of these scientists, government and non-profit leaders, and others have not been providing impartial and honest accounts of the evidence on the origins of SARS-CoV-2 or even their own research activities in 2019. If taken seriously, a lab-origin theory implies that Congressional investigators may someday uncover emails that, if read by an impartial scientist like myself, unbottle more historic pieces of evidence implicating US-funded (and China-funded) scientists in creating a virus that killed 20 million people. That is the most likely scenario, by large margins, so proceed with courage, caution, and impartial consultation.

I encourage Congressional Democrats to live by the words of Dr. Ruiz and take the lab origin as seriously as the evidence warrants, and to understand how Congressional investigations of scientists connected with NIAID are necessary to uncover the truth as well as clear names. The first step is for these officials to acquaint themselves with the current front lines of lab-origin theory and find impartial scientists who can provide testimony about the probable lab origin of SARS-CoV-2.

Congress needs an impartial insider, a scientific Pocahontas, who can help them traverse these treacherous lands. As someone who studied pathogen spillover, helped write a DARPA PREEMPT grant for the same call to which DEFUSE was proposed, became acquainted with lab-origin theory, helped produce some evidence consistent with a lab origin now showing up in Dr. Baric’s testimony, and has helped managers without science degrees navigate Covid as a pop science writer and impartial consultant, I’m eager to fulfill my civic duty and help out where duty calls.

Republished from the author’s Substack



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Author

  • Alex Washburne

    Alex Washburne is a mathematical biologist and the founder and chief scientist at Selva Analytics. He studies competition in ecological, epidemiological, and economic systems research, with research on covid epidemiology, the economic impacts of pandemic policy, and stock market response to epidemiological news.

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