British science writer raises questions on origin of COVID-19

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Washington, May 20 (PTI) The researchers at China's Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanised mice, and this is exactly the kind of experiment from which a COVID-19-like virus could have emerged, according to a noted British science writer, editor and author.

In a detailed article titled ‘The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan’ published in the prestigious Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists early this month, Nicholas Wade has raised several questions on the origin of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that has disrupted lives the world over for more than a year and caused over three million deaths and wrecked global economies.

The novel coronavirus emerged at central China’s Wuhan city in December 2019 and became a pandemic.

The evidence adds up to a serious case that the SARS2 virus could have been created in a lab, from which it then escaped, wrote Wade, who refers to SARS-CoV-2 virus as SARS2 in short.

'But the case, however substantial, falls short of proof. Proof would consist of evidence from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or related labs in Wuhan, that SARS2 or a predecessor virus was under development there. For lack of access to such records, another approach is to take certain salient facts about the SARS2 virus and ask how well each is explained by the two rival scenarios of origin,' according to him.

Wade said that many people know that there are two main theories about its origin - one is that it jumped naturally from wildlife to people and the other is that the virus was under study in a lab, from which it escaped.

'For the lab escape scenario, a Wuhan origin for the virus is a no-brainer. Wuhan is home to China’s leading center of coronavirus research where researchers were genetically engineering bat coronaviruses to attack human cells. They were doing so under the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 lab. If a virus with the unexpected infectiousness of SARS2 had been generated there, its escape would be no surprise,” he said.

The “proponents of lab escape can explain all the available facts about SARS2 considerably more easily than can those who favour natural emergence,” he wrote.

'It’s documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice. This is exactly the kind of experiment from which a SARS2-like virus could have emerged. The researchers were not vaccinated against the viruses under study, and they were working in the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 laboratory. So escape of a virus would not be at all surprising,” he said.

'In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute. The virus was already well adapted to humans, as expected for a virus grown in humanised mice. It possessed an unusual enhancement, a furin cleavage site, which is not possessed by any other known SARS-related beta-coronavirus, and this site included a double arginine codon also unknown among beta-coronaviruses. What more evidence could you want, aside from the presently unobtainable lab records documenting SARS2’s creation?” he wrote.

The origins of the COVID-19 pandemic remain a widely debated topic, with some scientists and politicians maintaining that the possibility of a lab leak of the deadly virus exists. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is near the outbreak's known epicentre of Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.

Former US president Donald Trump was among those who supported the theory that the virus might have escaped from a bio lab in China.

Earlier this month, a group of leading UK and US scientists called for more investigation to determine the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the theory of an accidental release from a lab in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

In a letter published in the journal ‘Science’, the experts from world leading universities such as Harvard, Stanford and MIT said knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.

They caution that hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers must be taken seriously until there is sufficient data.

In May 2020, the World Health Assembly requested that the World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general work with partners to determine the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

A team of WHO experts, which probed the origin of the coronavirus, concluded in March that “all hypotheses” included the allegation that COVID-19 could have emanated from a bio lab 'remained open'.

World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, while receiving the report of the international experts’ team which visited Wuhan, said on March 30 that “as far as the WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table”.

“This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do,” he said.

Significantly, Tedros said the team has concluded that leak from the WIV as alleged by former US president Donald Trump is the “least likely hypothesis” but it requires further probe.

China has called for expanding the search for the origins of the coronavirus in other countries, mainly America, sidestepping the WHO chief's assertion that further probe is required on allegations that the deadly virus may have leaked from a bio-lab in Wuhan.

China has emphasised that the study of origins is a matter of science, which should be jointly conducted by scientists all over the world.

'To politicise this issue will only severely hinder global cooperation in study of origins, jeopardise anti-pandemic cooperation, and cost more lives. It would run counter to the international community's aspiration for solidarity against the virus,' a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said in March.

Study of origins is also a global mission that should be conducted in multiple countries and localities, the spokesperson added. PTI ZH AKJ ZH ZH