The SARS-CoV-2 virus, or SARS2 in short, that caused the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives, businesses and economies around the world. The death toll is closing down to the 3.5 million mark, but the origin of the deadly and highly contagious virus is still unknown. The political agendas of the governments and scientists have created an opaque bubble around the information that no one has been able to pierce so far.
Nicholas Wade, a former science editor for the New York Times, detailed out two hypotheses based on the information available about the origin of the virus. In a detailed article, one hypothesis discusses the possible origin in nature, the other talks about its possible origin in a lab in Wuhan. The bits and pieces collected by scientists, researchers, and investigators amidst strong attempts to hide the available information about SARS2 by the Chinese government give a somewhat clear picture about the possibilities of its origin.
Before we begin discussing the origin of the virus, it has to be kept in mind that every virus that jumps from species to species leaves a trail that helps in assessing how it reaches its current target. Even in the case of viruses that get accidentally leaked from labs, there clues about their origin hidden in the virus genome, codes for restructured protiens and traces of enhancing its function. However, in the case of the Covid-19 virus, it has been almost 18 months since it was first reported on the international platform, but the clues about its origin are either bleak or non-existent.
In a recent interview with Fox News, Wade had slammed US media for not doing enough to question the relevant authorities about finding the origins of the pandemic.
The two theories of ‘Origin of Covid’
Wade, in his detailed article, valued both sides of the argument, by carefully evaluating the claims of ‘natural origin’ and ‘laboratory origin’ on the basis of existing evidence and asserted that the ‘blame’ extends far beyond just the Chinese government.
In December 2019, the Chinese authorities reported that several cases of Covid-19 occurred in the wet market in Wuhan. Wet markets are the places where wild animals are sold for meat. Wet markets have been associated with the spread of deadly viruses in Humans. Two prominent examples are the SARS1 epidemic of 2002, in which a bat virus jumped to civets and then to humans. Civet meat is easily available in Chinese wet markets. The second similar incident occurred in 2012 when the MERS virus made a jump from camels to humans.
Based on the genetic information available of the Covid-19 virus, it has been determined that It belongs to a viral family known as beta-coronaviruses. It is the same family that SARS1 and MERS belong to. The relationship between the viruses gave strength to the idea that the virus jumped from bats to another animal host and then to humans naturally. The wet market connection similar to SARS1 and MERS epidemics gave more strength to the idea. However, later it was found by the Chinese researchers that the cases of Covid-19 in Wuhan were not directly linked to the wet market. However, the discovery did not put any dent in the idea of a natural shift from animals to humans.
The city of Wuhan has the Wuhan institute of Virology which is a leading world centre for research on coronaviruses. This is the main reason several experts believe that SARS2 could have escaped from the lab in Wuhan.
The experts’ stand that put faith in natural occurrence
In the early months of the pandemic offset, two scientific groups made strong statements in favour of the natural emergence of the virus. Unfortunately, they were not examined as critically as they should have been by the scientific community.
On February 19, 2020, a group of virologists and others wrote in the Lancet, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” At that time, it was too early to assert what could have happened. They pushed the theory strongly that the coronavirus originated in wildlife.
Wade said, “A definite mark of a good scientist is that they go to great pains to distinguish between what they know and what they don’t know. By this criterion, the signatories of the Lancet letter were behaving as poor scientists: they were assuring the public of facts they could not know for sure were true.”
‘Conflict of interest’ hidden in the Lancet letter
Medical journal The Lancet had faced heavy criticism in August 2020 for published a shady ‘research’ done by a fake organisation with fake data regarding hydroxychloroquine. Unfortunately, even in the case of the letter that essentially gave a ‘clean chit’ to Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Chinese govt, a very curious ommission was made. Lancet did not mention that one of the letter writers was involved with that particular line of research in the Wuhan institute and teh letter was basically teh scientist covering up his own culpability.
It was found that the letter was organized and drafted by Peter Daszak. He is the president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York that funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If SARS2 indeed leaked from there, he would be potentially culpable. The letter, however, concluded, “We declare no competing interests.”
Notably, if it were proven that SARS2 was leaked from a lab in Wuhan, it would cause a serious backlash from the public that would affect virologists everywhere. Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review editor, had said in March 2020, “It would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom.”
The second theory of the natural origin
On March 17, 2020, an op-ed (not a scientific article) authored by a group of virologists led by Kristian G. Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute was published in the Nature Medicine Journal. It stated, “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
The theory was based on older methods of cutting and pasting viral genomes that retain the signs of manipulation. If the modern methods are considered, they provide rather a seamless approach leaving no defining marks of any manipulation. However, rejecting the modern methodology completely by not including it in their base for their theory, they said, “It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus”.
Two methods were discussed in their letter. The first in which the virologists would calculate the strongest possible fit between the human ACE2 receptor and spike protein so that the virus could latch onto it, and the second in which scientists would convert RNA genome to DNA and then arrange for the manipulated DNA genome to be converted back into infectious RNA. As they could not find signs of any of the two mentioned methods, they concluded it could not be laboratory-made.
Though both the theories have a flimsy foundation, no one in the science community cared to call out Andersen Group’s argument for its potential absurdity, Wade asserts. The reason? Wade believes that calling out such an influential group can cost careers. Those who challenge the community’s declared view always face the risk to have the next grant application turned down.
China has no proof to prove the natural emergence of Covid-19
SARS1 and MERS viruses had left traces in the environment that led the investigating scientists to find the intermediary host species in less than a year. While SARS1’s intermediary host was identified within four months, in the case of MERS, it took nine months. However, It has been fifteen months since SARS2 jumped to the human population, but there is no evidence found so far about the intermediary host species. Based on the lack of such evidence, it is logical to pay attention to the alternative theory that the virus escaped from the lab.
Why scientists create such deadly viruses?
Since virologists gained the modern technology that allows them to manipulate virus’s genes, they have been trying to develop more deadly viruses in the lab. The idea is to prepare the world for a potential pandemic when a virus jumps from animal to humans. Based on the rationale, the scientists had created the 1918 flu virus to show how almost extinct poliovirus could be synthesized from the published DNA sequence and introduced a smallpox gene into a related virus. It is known as “gain-of-function” experiments.
The possible connection between Wuhan lab and Covid
It has to be noted that the researchers at Wuhan Institute of Virology, led by Dr Shi Zgeng-li or “Bat Lady”, have collected over a hundred different bat coronaviruses from bat-infested caves of Yunnan. She teamed up with Ralph S. Baric, an eminent coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina and focused on enhancing the ability of bat viruses to attack humans.
During their research, they developed a novel virus codenamed SHC014-CoV. When it was tested against the lab culture of human airway cells, it was found that the virus was able to infect them. The virus was they created is also known as Chimera. If SARS2 was created in her lab, its direct prototype would be SHC014-CoV.
How different events point fingers at Wuhan lab?
Dr Baric had developed a general method to engineer bat coronaviruses to attack other species. He taught the method to Dr Shi. When she returned to her lab at Wuhan Institute of Virology, she resumed the work on genetically engineering coronaviruses to attack human cells.
The theory stands strong as her work was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Her proposal is available in the public record. The grant was assigned to Dr Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, who subcontracted Dr Shi. The very same Dr Daszak who had hurried to publish a letter in Lancet giving a clean chit to the Wuhan lab and asserting that ‘lab origin’ theories are fake.
In the grant proposals for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, it was mentioned,” Test predictions of CoV inter-species transmission. Predictive models of host range (i.e. emergence potential) will be tested experimentally using reverse genetics, pseudovirus and receptor binding assays, and virus infection experiments across a range of cell cultures from different species and humanized mice.”
In 2019 it said, “We will use S protein sequence data, infectious clone technology, in vitro and in vivo infection experiments and analysis of receptor binding to test the hypothesis that % divergence thresholds in S protein sequences predict spillover potential.”
As Dr Shi’s records have been sealed by the Chinese government, it is impossible to state if she created SARS2 in the lab or not. However, with the available evidence, it seems she was on the right track. Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and leading expert on biosafety, said, “It cannot yet be stated that Dr Shi did or did not generate SARS2 in her lab because her records have been sealed, but it seems she was certainly on the right track to have done so. “It is clear that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was systematically constructing novel chimeric coronaviruses and was assessing their ability to infect human cells and human-ACE2-expressing mice.”
History has evidence of lab leaks
In several interviews, Dr Daszak stated that the virus could not escape from the Wuhan lab. Even in 2020, he said that the theory that it escaped from Wuhan lab is absurd. However, there are several cases where deadly viruses had escaped from best-run laboratories across the globe. In the 1960s and 1970s, the smallpox virus escaped three times from labs in England, causing 80 cases and three deaths. SARS1 has leaked from laboratories in Taiwan, Singapore and four times from the Chinese National Institute of Virology in Beijing.
It has to be noted that though Wuhan Institute of Virology had a new BSL4 lab, reports suggest that the State Department inspectors who visited it from the Beijing embassy in 2018 were alarmed by its state of readiness. The inspector wrote, “The new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians, and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”
Working in BSL4 conditions is a pain for the virologists as they have to wear a spacesuit and do operations in closed cabinets. Every task takes twice as long as it should take. Before 2020, China allowed SARS1 and MERS to be handled in BSL3 conditions, but all other bat viruses could be handled in BSL2 conditions where minimal safety precautions are required. Notably, the majority of Dr Shi’s gain-of-function work was performed in BSL2 labs which she confirmed in an interview. Wade writes that BSL2 conditions can be similar to a dentist’s clinic.
There were concerns about the safety conditions in the Wuhan lab. According to a fact sheet released by the State Department on January 15, 2021, “ The U.S. 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.”
Daszak was also in the WHO team that went to Wuhan to find the origins of Covid
Dr Daszak’s ‘conflict of interest’ in giving a clean chit to the Wuhan lab is mentioned above. However, he was also in the WHO team that had gone to China to find the origins of the pandemic. The WHO report was inconclusive. WHO it sent admitted that the team was not allowed by Chinese authorities fulla access to data and labs. Also, though Daszak and team kept asserting that the virus did not come from a laboratory, they could provide no convincing proof that it was natural either.
Daszak had admitted to developing SARS coronaviruses in China that have no vaccines, just before the pandemic started
Wade writes that in an interview on December 9, just before the pandemic raged, Daszak had himself boasted that they have been conducting research to manipulate coronaviruses and they have developed over 100 new coronaviruses that can get into human cells in a lab, they are untreatable with antibody models and there are no vaccines against them. He also boasted that coronaviruses are pretty easy to manipulate. The relevant part can be seen at the 28-minute mark in the interview below.
The place of SARS2 origin
The closest known relatives of SARS2 were found in the caves of Yunnan, but SARS2 was found infecting people 1,500 KM away in Wuhan. The range of bats is around 50 K.M. it is highly unlikely they travelled from Yunnan to Wuhan.
The theory of an intermediary person or animal travelling to Wuhan does not stand either as no one between Yunnan and Wuhan got infected by the virus. Wuhan is home to China’s top centres of coronavirus research. As noted before, scientists were able to create genetically engineered bat viruses capable of attacking humans.
Evolution from bats to humans
One theory suggests that the intermediary is yet to be found. Those who believe in this theory say that it is possible the jump from bat to human took place outside China. Another theory suggests directly jumps from bats to humans. In that case, the virus should not have changed much. If the virus jumped from bat to humans directly, it should have been able to infect bats as well, which is not the case.
No strong evidence of natural emergence or leak from the lab
There is no direct evidence of either of the theories. Till no definitive conclusion can be reached out, both natural emergence and the lab escape hypothesis have to be factored in. Notably, possibilities do weigh towards a slab leak. It is well documented that researchers at Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments and were working under minimal safety conditions of the BSL2 lab. Thus escape from the virus would not be a surprise.
The lab’s records can make things clearer, but the Chinese government is unlikely to release the documents. The connection to US-based organisations’ funding to experiments in Wuhan labs, conflict of interest in articles published by researchers denying a lab leak and China’s reluctance towards releasing more information on the experiments in Wuhan lab raise a lot of questions about Covid-19’s origin.
The detailed report by Nicholas Wade on the Origin of Covid-19 virus can be read here.