China claims it has nothing to hide on coronavirus but made two crucial virus databases inaccessible in Sept 2019. Here is what we know

Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during the visit by the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Where did Chinese coronavirus come from? It is a million-dollar question that is making every government, virologist, and other experts scratch their heads. The reason? China, from where the deadly virus was first reported, is sitting on the answers yet claim it has nothing to hide. China has not really been too helpful and forthcoming in helping the world know about the origins of the pandemic, and one can only speculate what went wrong as the dragon is keeping mum.

China-WHO investigation to find origins of Covid-19

In May 2020, during the World Health Assembly, health ministers had passed a resolution to request WHO to work with its partners and countries to identify the source of the Covid-19 virus. In November 2020, World Health Organization announced that it would soon launch an investigation to find the origins of Covid-19. Without revealing the names of the international team members of epidemiologists, virologists and researchers with expertise in public health, animal health and food safety, WHO informed that they had their first virtual meeting on October 30, 2020 about the possible investigation in Wuhan.

A spokesperson claimed the investigation “will be open-minded, iterative, not excluding any hypothesis that could contribute to generating evidence and narrowing the focus of research.” The researchers planned to have a closer look at the Huanan meat and animal market that is believed to be the possible source of the outbreak. WHO also claimed that China had pledged on access for COVID origins probe. WHO emergency expert Dr Mike Ryan told a news briefing that they expected to have a team on the ground soon. “We need to be able to have the international team join our Chinese colleagues and go to the ground and look at the results and outcomes of those phase 1 studies and verify these data on the ground,” he added.

It is still a mystery, though, how this market had played a role in spreading the virus as in a November 5 report [PDF], 336 samples, including frozen animal carcasses, were collected from the market in January 2020, out of which none had any traces of Covid-19. However, out of 842 environmental samples collected, 69 were tested positive for the virus. Out of these 69 samples, 61 were from the western wing of the market. The report stated, “Preliminary studies have not generated credible leads to narrow the area of research.”

The WHO team is investigating wild and farmed animals sold in the market that includes foxes and raccoons. They will also trace the journey of animals through China and across borders. It will look at the hospital records in Wuhan to determine if the virus was spreading before December 2019.

The investigation began in January 2021

A 14-member team was formulated including eight international experts, five WHO experts, and one representative from OIE (Keith Hamilton, head of preparedness and resilience) to visit China and initiate an investigation under the leadership of Peter Ben Embarek, WHO scientist for food safety and zoonosis. Before the team started the journey, Embarek had said it “could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened”. he further said, “I don’t think we will have clear answers after the initial mission, but we will be on the way, and hopefully in the coming months that will be completed by additional missions.” The rest of the team will work on the investigation remotely.

The team reached China on January 14, 2021. According to Embarek, it is essential to find out the origin of the virus for three reasons. “One is if we find the source and if it’s still out there, we can prevent future reintroduction of the same virus into the human population. Second, if we understand how this one jumped from bats into humans, we can perhaps prevent similar events in the future. Third, if we can find the virus, what it looked like before it jumped to the human population, we could potentially be in a better position to develop more efficient treatments and vaccines for this disease,” he said.

Possible reasons for spread of coronavirus

Several scientists have speculated that the Covid-19 virus jumped from animals, such as bats, to humans. It is also a possibility that there was an intermediate stop to another animal. Similar zoonotic spillover has happened before, for example, in the case of the Ebola outbreak of 2014 in West Africa.

There is another possible pathway that needs to be investigated and that the potential lead from the laboratory. There can be many ways that can lead to such leaks, including improper disposal and a laboratory worker getting infected who may have passed it to others. There are around 11 million people in Wuhan. It is considered to be a significant hub and center for virus studies in China. There are six known facilities with BSL-3 laboratories that handle infectious agents. Several published papers have made it clear that some of the institutes in Wuhan are actively researching coronavirus.

The dark day that plunged the world into lockdown

Shi Zhengli, famously called the ‘bat woman’ of China, has actively worked on coronavirus and has identified dozens of strains that can potentially cause an epidemic. Her team has extensively studied and experimented on coronavirus found in bats that are very similar to the one that has caused the global pandemic.

On December 30, 2019, the director of Wuhan Institute of Virology called her and asked her to drop whatever she was doing and rush to the laboratory. They had identified a potentially new strain of the virus that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) like symptoms in two patients. Her team investigated the cases that further spread in the coming months. It was named SARS-CoV-2, commonly known as Covid-19.

Dr. Shi claimed that when she came to know about the outbreak, she checked her laboratory records to check if there had been any mishandling of the experimental materials. She further said that the genetic sequences her team had worked on did not match the Covid-19 genome, which was a relief for her. Shi had told Scientific American that it “really took a load off my mind.”

The mysterious ‘cover-up’

The story is much complicated than it appears. China has been accused of actively covering up the early stages of the pandemic. It has been trying its level best not to get the blame for the global pandemic. In fact, President Xi Jinping failed to warn the general public in China or abroad and only announced about the potentially highly infectious virus in mid-January. By that time, most people in China had already reached or were travelling to celebrate Chinese New Year with their family, causing the wildfire-like spread of the virus.

Since the announcement of the pandemic, China has been making dubious claims that Covid-19 originated outside China. From blaming the United States to mink farms to India, China has pointed fingers at several agencies for the spread. In one theory, it claimed that the virus was brought to China in contaminated packaging of frozen food from abroad. In another theory, it blamed the U.S. military biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick. In November 2020, it even went ahead and blamed India for being the origin of the virus. In the past few months, it has been spreading disinformation about the virus that has raised suspicions that either it is trying to distract the international agencies from finding something against it or it is trying to conceal something.

‘Gain of function’ research

It is well known that Dr. Shi has been conducting ‘gain of function’ research on bat coronaviruses. It involves modifying the genome of the viruses and introduce new properties to them. These properties make it possible for the virus to jump between different host species easily. Though such researches are deemed highly controversial, it is believed that such researches can provide a chance to develop effective countermeasures such as a broad coronavirus vaccine. However, such researches have the potential to create a danger that never existed before. A minor error in handling the modified virus can cause a leak to the outer world, causing a deadly spread across the globe.

The research Dr. Shi has been doing is well-funded by China, United States and Europe. The grant documents show her work was aimed to determine the possible spillover of bats coronavirus from one species to another. Her research involved creating a series of novel chimeric viruses that can use different spike proteins from some unpublished natural coronaviruses. The resulting novel viruses would be tested on human cells in culture and infect lab animals for testing. It also included experiments on mice with genetically modified cells that can respond as similar to human respiratory cells.

Her institute had collected thousands of samples from bat caves in China. The National Institutes of Health also funded her research through EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based nongovernmental organization. Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, is also a member of the WHO virus origin investigating team, and he is leading a separate investigation.

In February 2020, Shi published a paper in which the researchers stated that the close phylogenetic relationship to RaTG13 provides evidence that 2019-nCoV may have originated in bats. Based on her findings, Daszak had said, “It’s crystal clear that bats, once again, are the natural reservoir.” In June 2020, he had said, “It’s incredibly important to pinpoint the source of infection and the chain of cross-species transmission.”

Every expert has emphasized on the fact that it is essential to determine the origin of the virus. To determine if the virus was leaked or there was a laboratory accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or another lab in China, the investigators need complete access to the research these institutes have done. They also need access to archived lab notes, records of experiments and data, communication between the scientists via emails and other methods, bat samples, viral strain samples, sequences from where WIV collected the samples and comparison documents to understand the genetic blueprint of their research. All the information will help in developing the genetic blueprint of the pandemic virus.

China’s inability to open up and to miss critical database

Such investigation requires transparency and verification of data and sample provenance. However, China has not quite been forthcoming on the data. There was a critical database that had all the information about Dr. Shi’s work at WIV. According to DRASTIC, a network of researchers and scientists, this particular database is the most important bat coronavirus database in China that holds over 22,000 samples and some of their genetic sequences along with the WIV virus sampling trips that the institute has been doing for many years.

As per the reports, the institute has so far collected 15,000 samples from bats that cover over 400 viruses. It also holds over 100 unpublished sequences of bat coronavirus that are crucial for investigating the origin of the pandemic.

Of all the samples, what investigators are interested in the most are the full sequences of eight viruses that were sampled in an unidentified location in Yunnan province. The information about these was only recently disclosed in an addendum to the February 2020 paper by Dr. Shi. The addendum was published in November 2019.

According to the paper, between July 1 and October 2012, WIV received 13 serum samples that were collected from 4 patients who showed severe respiratory disease. The number of patients later rose to six. These patients had visited a mine cave in Tongguan town, Mojiang County, Yunnan Province, China, to clean bat feces so that it can be cleared to mine copper. They were admitted to the First Affiliated Hospital of Kunming Medical University on April 26-27, 2012. The samples that WIV received were collected by the hospital staff in June, July, August and September 2012.

By 2018, with WIV laboratory was improved with next-generation sequencing technology and capability. They performed further sequencing of the bat virus and obtained an almost full genome sequence of a sample that was renamed RaTG13. In 2020, they compared the SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) sequence with RaTG13 and found it has 96.2% similarity in the sequence. Out of the six people total infected by the unknown virus in 2012, three had died.

Now the problem is that a limited portion database was password-protected, and it is not accessible. It is possible that WIV kept it protected to ensure scientists from WIV were the first to write scientific papers about the viruses and sequences. Things got weird on September 12, 2019, when, according to DRASTIC, the public data became unreachable from outside the institute. Dr. Shi, however, claimed that her institute has nothing to hide, and they made it offline for security reasons.

Another portal of virus databases that were created by the National Virus Resource Center, affiliated with WIV, also went offline. All the key virus database managed by WIV are not accessible to the outer world.

Infection was reported in autumn 2019, says the US

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his final days in the office, had stated that there is a reason to believe that researchers in WIV became sick in autumn 2019 before the first identified case of the outbreak. He said, “The US government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” However, the United States did not provide any evidence on the statement. Experts believe that if the US government has some information about the initial infection, it should release it and declassify all the intelligence related to the spread of the virus.

China must open doors to WIV

If WIV, as the Chinese government and Dr. Shi claims, has nothing to hide, the institute must open the closed doors to the scientists. Dr. Shi can safely open up the databases to the scientists that can help the investigators to understand the evolution of SARS-CoV-2. It should provide all available records of bat sampling, viruses and sequences, along with the verified information provenance. It is a fact that every person across the globe has the right to know the origin of the pandemic. Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Chinese government may have the much-needed clues about the origin of the virus and possible similar situations in the future. It will be a major step towards finding the answer to all the questions if experts get access to relevant databases and laboratory records as China has nothing to HIDE after all.

Anurag: Multimedia graduate by education. Writer by profession. Poet by heart.