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Back story: In May 2020, I posted here on the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. I wrote how many scientists who examined the genome sequence of the novel virus concluded in a letter to Nature in March, that “…the genetic data irrefutably shows that [CoV-2] is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.” That means that in its genetic sequence, there is zero evidence it was engineered in a lab.
On the other hand, I also mentioned, that a 2018 report by several diplomats who visited the Wuhan Institute for Virology (WIV) months before the pandemic broke concluded that the lab’s security and safety measures were lax. If true, it means that an accidental leak from the lab is plausible. However, note that these were not scientists, but diplomats. Later, James Le Duc, PhD and head of the Galveston National Laboratory, which is the biggest biocontainment facility on a US academic campus, also visited the lab and stated that it had safety and quality measures comparable to the best Western labs. Other Western scientists who have visited WIV also highly rated the facility and concluded that an accidental release was “implausible.” And in February, 2020, 27 scientists published a letter in The Lancet that roundly rejected the lab-leak hypothesis. One of the major responsibilities of the lab is to isolate novel coronaviruses from bats from all corners of China, sequence their genomes, and post the sequences into a repository that is freely available to researchers around the world. This was partly paid for with a modest sub-grant from the NIH. The genome sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus does not match the sequence of any coronavirus posted in the repository suggesting, but not proving, that they never worked on it.
I also reported last September that in December 2019, the world first became aware of a mysterious respiratory illness that popped up in November of 2019 in Wuhan, China. Wuhan is home to both a wet animal market and the WIV. Soon after detecting the unusual disease, Chinese scientists reported that it was caused by a previously unknown coronavirus. Suspicion immediately was placed on an animal in the wet market as the source of the outbreak, since the SARS-CoV-1 virus had been traced to an animal in a wet market. Later, the MERS coronavirus was also traced to animals, in this case camels, that passed the virus to humans. Indeed, the CoV-2 virus was found in the wet market, but it remains unknown how it got there and the animal host that is postulated to have transferred the new CoV-2 virus to humans has not been found. Without a “smoking bat,” the source of the CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 remains elusive. That lack of certitude regarding the source of the virus led some to speculate that it came from the WIV, either by design or by incompetence. That hypothesis was downplayed by a WHO expert team that spent a month in Wuhan investigating the source of the outbreak. They reported that it was much more likely that the virus had an animal origin. But, that report was woefully incomplete due to Chinese stonewalling.
The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 appeared in Wuhan in December 2019. But, last February, I reported that in October 2019, weeks before the Wuhan disease was reported, several clusters totaling 90 people with a COVID-like respiratory disease were hospitalized in different parts of China, miles from Wuhan. I also commented that shortly after the Wuhan disease was recognized, the UCLA medical center reported an unusual 50% increase in respiratory illness. Finally, there is the Italian child who was treated for respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, also before the disease was first reported. Recent analysis of samples that were saved from the kid showed he was infected with CoV-2. How did he catch the virus half a world away and before it was recognized in Wuhan?
Fast forward a few months to now, and we find people increasingly exercised over the possibility that the virus came from the WIV—and they do so with the slimmest of evidence, but with an abundance of conjecture.
Why the new focus on the idea that the virus came from the lab? The theory that the virus came from a Wuhan lab began to gain traction amid criticism of the international WHO probe into the virus’ origin earlier this Spring that concluded the virus likely came from nature. That probe was admittedly inadequate due to the Chinese government’s lack of cooperation. They denied the team full access to necessary lab data that might prove or disprove that the virus came from the lab. That lack of transparency added fuel to the conspiratorial fires that Trump and others have been spreading about the virus originating in the WIV. On top of that, a recently released US intelligence report claimed that three researchers in the lab became ill and sought hospitalization in November 2019, just weeks before the disease and virus were identified, and about the time that the Italian child became ill. Beijing denied that report. The information in the report came from an unnamed “international partner,” and remains uncorroborated. The report also stated that the lab workers had “…symptoms consistent with either Covid-19 or common seasonal illness (emphasis mine).” Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist on the WHO team that investigated the WIV told NBC News in March that she attributed the illnesses to regular seasonal sickness. Unlike the Italian child, these lab workers were never diagnosed with or without COVID-19. It is not even known if they were exposed to any coronavirus or even got ill from the lab—remember, others in Wuhan and elsewhere around China, and even in Italy and California, also were coming down with similar symptoms at the same time. The head of the WIV also claimed that all staff had tested negative for Covid-19 antibodies and that there had been no turnover of staff on the coronavirus team, suggesting no hospitalizations. It would be very helpful if the Chinese government released records to substantiate these claims.
If we are going to focus on the Wuhan lab illnesses as almost being a smoking gun, on what basis do we ignore these similar, and in the case of the Italian child, confirmed, far-flung cases? All this is makes it far from convincing that we know where the virus came from, and even casts reasonable doubt that it originated in Wuhan, let alone in the WIV.
Then, there is this: Twenty-seven of the first 41 COVID-19 patients identified in Wuhan had contact with the wet market in Wuhan, where China’s CDC found traces of the novel virus, and none of these 41 cases were clearly linked to the WIV—according to the Chinese government.
Adding fuel to the lab-origin-of-the-virus fire is a recent Fox News interview by Tucker Carlson with an exiled Chinese scientist who did some work with animal coronaviruses as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong. The scientist, Dr. Li-Meng Yang, claimed in the interview that she could present solid scientific evidence that the virus is not from nature, but man-made in a lab. She also claimed that she was among the first scientists to study the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. But the University of Hong Kong said in a July statement that Yang never conducted any research on human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus at HKU. More recently, Yang co-published an article that suggests there was "sophisticated laboratory modification" of the coronavirus. The study was uploaded Sept. 14 to a website called Zenodo, an open-source repository of research that is not peer-reviewed.
The research behind that article was backed by the Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation, sister nonprofit organizations that are connected to Steve Bannon, a former chief strategist for the Trump administration, and Guo Wengui, a billionaire political activist who fled China in 2014 to avoid corruption charges. Neither organization has published scientific reports before. Also, a website linked to Bannon and Wengui has a history of making inaccurate claims about the coronavirus pandemic. Yang’s charade eventually collapsed as her utter lack of expertise was exposed.
Finally, scientists worldwide have publicly shared the genetic makeup of the coronavirus and its variants thousands of times. If the virus had been altered, there would be evidence in its genome data. Experts in viral genome evolution determined that such evidence is lacking. It almost certainly was not engineered because it has several naturally occurring features and is closely related to a 2014 coronavirus that came from a bat in a cave in China that was collected and sequenced by the WIV and reported in its database. In March, several microbiology, infectious disease and evolutionary biology experts wrote in the journal Nature that the genetic makeup of the coronavirus does not indicate it was altered.
Bottom line: At this point, there is zero compelling evidence that the virus came from the lab. The so-called evidence that the lab was the source of the virus has, so far, been either circumstantial or debunked. Admittedly, it remains possible that the virus did come from the lab, but that remains an hypothesis, not proven fact. China bears responsibility for obstructing investigators. Whether it did so out of sheer authoritarian habit or because it had a lab leak to hide is, and may always be, unknown.
China’s lack of transparency in all this does not constitute solid evidence that the virus came from the lab. Evolutionary biologist, Dr. Joel Wertheim, cautions that we should not default to conspiracy theories when we do not have immediate answers to important question. He reminds us that it took scientists decades of research to find the chimpanzee population that passed the HIV virus to humans, causing the AIDS pandemic. During that time, some cranks posited, with no evidence, only fervor, that the US government created it. It is a maxim of science that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The extraordinary claims made by some regarding the WIV origin of the virus have not been supported by any, let alone extraordinary evidence.
We will see. Maybe….