Life Wellbeing Virus origin: Leak from lab just as likely as animal-to-human transmission
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Virus origin: Leak from lab just as likely as animal-to-human transmission

Virologist Shi Zheng-Li, also known as 'Bat Lady', at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo: Getty
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From where and how did the coronavirus originate – from a leak from a lab in Wuhan or the natural world? Does it matter at this point?

Absolutely.

“There’s going to be COVID-26 and COVID-32 unless we fully understand the origins of COVID-19.”

That’s according to Dr Peter J Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, talking to NBC this week.

Dr Hotez is one of a growing number of experts calling for China to give “unfettered access” to a team of independent investigators – with a view to solving the mystery once and for all.

Wuhan investigated for lab leak

In February, the World Health Organisation team examining the origins of the pandemic concluded it was “extremely unlikely” the coronavirus leaked from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The laboratory was about five kilometres away from the wet market where the virus apparently first appeared.

Research there included re-engineering bat coronaviruses collected from caves 1600 kilometres away.

The WHO team instead concluded the coronavirus “most likely” originated in animals before infecting humans – and said it was possible that virus originated outside of China.

It was a vague finding, underpinned by concerns the Chinese hadn’t given the WHO team access to all relevant data.

China responded by demanding the US be investigated as a potential source of the virus.

Wuhan authorities rapidly built COVID-19 hospitals to cater to rapidly rising patient demand. Photo: Reuters/China News Service

At the time, Australian experts said that the conclusions were premature and based on weak evidence.

Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute at the University of NSW, said the lab-leak theory – which had been widely rejected as a racist conspiracy theory – had not been properly explored.

There wasn’t enough evidence to rule it out, Professor MacIntyre said.

That was three months ago, and the issue looked might it fade away amid the bigger struggle to bring the pandemic under control.

In the past four weeks, though, the lab-leak theory has started to run hot and the conspiracy theory is being reframed as a catastrophic case of “media groupthink”.

The latest coronavirus origin studies

On May 5, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a devastating piece from veteran science writer Nicholas Wade.

It showed how the lab-leak theory was quickly shut down and public discourse was shaped by statements from prominent virologists published in esteemed journals The Lancet  and Nature Medicine.

Simply put, these experts made claims about things they couldn’t have possibly known.

The authors of the Nature Medicine piece said the coronavirus showed no evidence of manipulation, such as the “seams” that indicate cut-and-paste genome tinkering.

Wade points out rather scarily, old version cut-and-pasting has been superseded by new technologies that “leave no defining marks”.

In other words, it’s now possible to manipulate viruses and leave no tell-tale signs.

Conflict of interest compromised WHO investigator

The Lancet piece, published in March 2020, declared with no evidence: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”

According to Wade, the Lancet letter had been organised and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York – and one of the more vocal members of the WHO team that eventually went to China.

One line of thinking believes the coronavirus may have started at a science lab in Wuhan that was testing bats.

Dr Daszak’s organisation funds coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology – notably the work of Dr Shi Zheng-Li, also known as “Bat Lady”.

The nickname relates to her multiple expeditions collecting about 100 different bat coronaviruses.

As Wade notes, “Shi set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells”.

He points out that, “if the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, [Dr] Daszak would be potentially culpable”.

This “acute conflict” of interest was not declared to the Lancet readers.

Dr Daszak, speaking as a member of the WHO investigative team, suggested the focus of the origin investigation should be shifted out of China and into South-East Asia.

Ten days after Wade’s report was published, a group of scientists published a letter in Science calling for more investigation in the pandemic’s origin, noting: “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.”

The tide was turning.

Some cold logic

Wade writes that when the WHO investigative team went to China, they were offered “no evidence … in support of the natural emergence theory”.

This was “surprising because both the SARS1 and MERS viruses had left copious traces in the environment”.

The intermediary host species of SARS1 “was identified within four months of the epidemic’s outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months”.

Fifteen months after the COVID-19 pandemic began, the original bat population (from which the virus originally sprung) remains unidentified, and so does the intermediate species that purportedly caught the virus from bats and passed it on to humans.

Wade said there was no “serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to December 2019”.

The smoking gun?

On May 23, the Wall Street Journal reported that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology “became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed US intelligence report”.

The intelligence report said the lab workers became sick in northern hemisphere autumn 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness”.

The WSJ said the intelligence report “could add weight to growing calls for a fuller probe of whether the COVID-19 virus may have escaped from the laboratory”.

Dr Daszak, who continues to be loudly supportive of China’s position, has called the intelligence report into question.

On May 25, The Washington Post published a pivot piece: ‘How the Wuhan lab-leak theory suddenly became credible’.

The next day, The New York Times reported US President Joe Biden ordered US intelligence agencies to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, “indicating that his administration takes seriously the possibility that the deadly virus was accidentally leaked from a lab, in addition to the prevailing theory that it was transmitted by an animal to humans outside a lab”.

Mr Biden has made the point that the evidence for each theory was about on par: Not leaning one way or the other.

He ordered for a report to be tabled in 90 days.