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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Explained: Where did the Covid-19 virus come from?

The theory that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a Wuhan lab is now being taken more seriously, with Biden ordering a probe and India weighing in. A look at what is understood so far, and what is speculated.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian
Mumbai | Updated: June 10, 2021 1:22:38 pm
Security personnel outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by a WHO team in February this year. (AP)

On May 26, US President Joe Biden announced that he had tasked the country’s “intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that would bring us closest to a definitive conclusion” on whether the virus that causes Covid-19 originated from human contact with an infected animal, or from a “laboratory accident”. A report will be submitted to him in 90 days.

The lab leak theory

Biden’s announcement that US intelligence agencies were divided on the question of the virus’s origin has given wings and new respectability to the “Wuhan lab leak” theory, earlier dismissed as a right wing, racist conspiracy theory propagated by President Donald Trump and his fellow travellers.

That the theory had been under serious consideration since at least September 2020 emerged on January 15 this year, a fortnight before the Trump Administration stepped down, when the US State Department made public a “fact sheet” that included “previously undisclosed information”, combined with open source information.

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It made three main points:

* that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) had fallen ill with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and seasonal illnesses, well before the first reported case on December 8, 2019;

* that 2016 researchers at WIV had been conducting experiments with RaTG13, a bat coronavirus that has a 96.2 % match Covid 19; RaTG13 was isolated as far back as 2013 from samples taken from bat faeces in a mine in Yunan, where six miners had died in 2012;

* that WIV carried out classified military research including animal experiments on behalf of the People’s Liberation Army.

However, according to a report in CNN, the Biden Administration shut down the State Department investigation as a waste of time and resources after officials questioned its legitimacy. But pressure was building on Biden to reconsider his position that Covid-19 had originate in nature, especially after a WHO report failed to come up with conclusive answers on the origin of the virus.

Then on May 14, a group of 18 scientists wrote in the journal Science that an inquiry to establish “greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve”, and demanded that both possibilities, “natural and laboratory spillovers”, be considered seriously.

On May 23 and 24, the Wall Street Journal published two reports that appear to have pushed Biden into action. One report quoted a US intelligence report as going “beyond the State Department fact sheet” and saying three researchers at WIV had fallen sick in November 2019. The second report was about the Yunan copper mine where six miners had fallen ill.

The mine & the virus

The WSJ report said the miners, diagnosed with severe pneumonia, had the same lung patches seen in Covid patients. Over the next year, WIV scientists studied samples from 276 bats in the mine, among which they identified a coronavirus strain they called RaBTCoV/4991. The research was published in 2016. In February 2020, the same researchers published a paper in Nature, describing RaTG13, which had a 96.2% genome sequence match with SARS-CoV-2.

After scientists around the world noticed similarities in the sample dates and partial genetic sequences of RaBTCOV/4991 and RaTG13, WIV researchers said the two viruses were the same. But they said it was not this virus that had caused the death of the miners back in 2012.

At the very least, the late admission by WIV that the two viruses were the same, and some contradictions in their explanations for this, have raised questions about the transparency of data from WIV. At the other extreme are those who do not rule out that WIV was conducting experiments to construct new viruses by combining elements of different bat viruses, perhaps for finding vaccines, and that this could have accidentally led to the leakage of a harmful virus from the lab.

All this has led to heightened concerns that the WHO report on the origins of the virus did not present a complete picture.

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The WHO report

The 120-page report, released on March 30, 2021, was inconclusive about the origins of the virus. But of four scenarios, it said it is “likely to very likely” the virus spread from an animal to an intermediate host to humans. The report said a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” although it did not study this possibility enough. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghenreyesus said “as far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table”. Although the team concluded that a lab leak is the least likely hypothesis, he said “this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am prepared to deploy”.

The report caused concerns among most countries. The US and 13 other countries issued a statement at the World Health Assembly “expressing shared concerns regarding the recent WHO-convened study in China, while at the same time reinforcing the importance of working together toward the development and use of a swift, effective, transparent ,science-based, and independent process for in evaluations of such outbreaks of unknown origins in the future”. EU member states said there was a “need to further work to study the origins of the virus and its route of introduction to the human population”.

The 18 scientists who wrote to Science also criticised the WHO report for weighing on the side of a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host without having studied the lab leak possibility adequately.

Biden announced his inquiry as the World Health Assembly met. No country except China has as yet opposed it.

China’s dismissal

Beijing has dismissed the traction for this theory as “hype” created by the US, and instead suggested that the virus came from Fort Detrick, a US Army base in Maryland.

Referring to the investigation announced by the US President, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the enquiry showed “[the US] aim is to use the pandemic to pursue stigmatisation, political manipulation and blame shifting. They are being disrespectful to science, irresponsible to people’s lives and counter-productive to the concerted efforts to fight the virus”.

India’s position

New Delhi backs further investigation. Without naming China, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said the WHO-led study was an “important first step” and all must co-operate in further inquiry to fix the origin of Covid-19 conclusively.

“The WHO convened global study on the origin of Covid-19 is an important first step. It stressed the need for next phase studies as also for further data and studies to reach robust conclusions. The follow up of the WHO report and further studies deserve the understanding and co-operation of all.”

***

How the theory gained ground

2019: First Identification

December 31: WHO is informed of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan City. On January 7, Chinese authorities identify a novel coronavirus as the cause.

2020: Claims & Scepticism

February 3: In a paper in Nature, Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers say SARS-CoV-2 has a 96.2% genome match with a bat coronavirus, RaTG13. Three days later, a researcher from South China University of Technology suggests in a paper, later withdrawn, that the coronavirus “probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan”.

February 19: In a statement published in The Lancet, a group of 27 scientists condemn conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and conclude it originated in wildlife. In a paper in Nature Medicine in March, scientists say it is impossible to prove or disprove the theories but add they do not believe it emerged from a lab.

March 27: The US Defense Intelligence Agency’s updated assessment includes the possibility of “unsafe laboratory practices” leading to the emergence of the coronavirus.

April 30: US President Donald Trump says people are looking at the laboratory-origin theory “very, very strongly”. Three days later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tells ABC News: “These are not the first times that we have had the world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese lab.”

July 4: The Times reports that a virus similar to SARS-CoV-2 was found in an abandoned copper mine in China in 2012, and then studied at WIV.

November 17: BioEssays journal publishes a paper headlined: “The genetic structure of SARS-CoV-2 does not rule out a laboratory origin.”

2021: Stronger Claims

January 15: US State Department’s “fact sheet” on WIV, in the last fortnight of Trump Administration, makes a case for the lab-origin theory.

March 30: WHO report, while inconclusive, finds laboratory leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely”. But WHO Secretary General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says “all hypotheses remain on the table”.

May 14: A group of 18 scientists, writing in Science, call for an enquiry to establish “greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic”, and demand that both possibilities, “natural and laboratory spillovers”, be considered seriously

May 23-24: The Wall Street Journal quotes a US intelligence report as saying three WIV researchers had fallen sick in November 2019; in another report it refers to the miners who fell sick in 2012, and says they had the same lung patches seen in Covid patients.

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