A year and a half after the first reported case of SARS-CoV-2, its origin is still being debated. Was it harboured by an unknown animal? Or, was it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology? More and more theories are emerging that refuse to believe in the idea of the natural origin of the virus.
US President Joe Biden further boosted this possibility after he announced that he had asked his National Security Advisor and Intelligence Community to follow up on an earlier submitted report which could not conclude that the virus originated from an infected animal or from a laboratory in Wuhan on May 26. The earlier report, Biden stated, needs more work as two of its findings lean towards the virus having been originated from an infected animal but one finding does point that it could have possibly been a lab leak, too.
"I have now asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days," Biden notified.
Biden has called it a 'lab leak'. However, it is noteworthy that since the transmission of the virus outside China in early 2020, there were several reports of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and China patenting the virus. There were also conspiracy theories suggesting the virus was a bioweapon.
The World Health Organisation has stated that the source of the COVID-19 disease-causing virus is still unknown, it also emphasised the theory that the virus originated from a lab at WIV is the least likely. However, WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that further research was required in this direction and it cannot be ruled out that the virus originated from a laboratory.
The chatter around this speculation has increased after a series of events have unfolded in 2021. Starting with a 'public fact sheet' released by the Donald Trump administration in January 2021 that raised several speculations about the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the WHO investigation, a letter by several scientists asking for a thorough investigation in the origin of SARS-CoV-2, two investigative pieces by the Wall Street Journal, ending with Dr. Anthony Fauci's acceptance that the US was funding WIV for research and Biden insisting on further research.
US Govt Public Fact Sheet
On January 15, 2021, before Biden was supposed to take over as the President of the United States, the Trump administration released a document called "Fact Sheet: Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology" which raised several eyebrows as it targeted China for being non-co-operative in investigating the origin of SARS-CoV-2. This fact sheet highlighted several undisclosed information points that were not shared by China, the US government claimed.
1. The fact sheet suggested that several scientists at the WIV fell sick in November 2019, a month before the first case was reported in the country. This along with reports of an earlier accidental leak in 2004 makes it necessary that the government permit researchers from WIV to speak to the media, but the Chinese government has refrained these scientists from interacting with the media. The WSJ article further investigates this claim.
2.. WIV was already conducting research on RaTG13 bat coronavirus which they later revealed to have a 96.2% similar genome to SARS-CoV-2. The fact sheet also claims that WIV is known to conduct "gain of function" research- wherein viruses or other pathogens are genetically altered to be more transmissible or pathogenic. It also claimed that the research institute has removed their online records of working with RaTG13 viruses without any clarifications.
3. As the US has funded and collaborated with WIV, it expects the lab to be transparent with its dealings with the Chinese Military. Through the factsheet, the Trump administration tried to cast aspersions on the virus having a natural origin or an accidental leak by suggesting that it could be a potential bioweapon.
WHO Report On Origin Of Virus
The WHO committee conducted a press conference in February and released its report on March 30 stating that the source of SARS-CoV-2 is still unknown. The report stated that either bats or pangolins could be the source of the virus. It even stated that there is a possibility that the virus was imported to the Wuhan market through the packaged food sold there.
In the press conference, Peter Ben Embarek, WHO virus expert, said that the hypothesis that the virus originated from a lab is also an area which the WHO will not further pursue as it was false. However, in March, the Director-General stated that the health organisation would not rule out this hypothesis just yet without further investigation.
Scientists Write Letter For Further Investigation
Eighteen scientists from institutes across the US and Canada wrote a letter in Science magazine on May 14 asking for a thorough investigation of the origin of COVID-19. They highlighted that theories stating that the virus is zoonotic (originating from animals) as well as that it could be an accidental leak are both plausible and thus need to be researched.
"Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks," reads the letter.
Several China-based scientists and epidemiologists plan to write a rebuttal letter to this letter, reported Global Times.
Wall Street Journal Report
On May 23 and May 24, Wall Street Journal published two investigative pieces that boosted the theory that the virus could have originated and leaked from one of the laboratories of Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In the May 23 story, they discussed the theory that emerged in the Trump fact sheet that staff at WIV had been hospitalised in November 2019 with COVID-19 like symptoms. This previously undisclosed report states that three researchers from WIV exhibited COVID-like symptoms and sought hospital care. The Chinese government had not shared raw data about the work it was doing on coronaviruses emerging from bats and further also kept the world in the dark about these doctors.
The foreign ministry responded to the WSJ's request by asking why was US so keen on the origin being from a lab leak. "The U.S. continues to hype the lab leak theory, Is it actually concerned about tracing the source or trying to divert attention?"
Dr. Shi Zhengli, principal investigator at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, did not respond to the WSJ. However, in February 2020, in a social-media post republished in Wuhan's main Communist Party newspaper, she said she could "guarantee on my life" that the virus hadn't originated in her labs.
Along with this, the February 2020 paper of the similarity in genomes between SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13, later lead people to ask if SARS-CoV-2 actually developed due to mutations in the laboratory as the RaTG13 bat coronavirus samples were available at WIV since 2013.
On May 24, the Wall Street Journal shared news about a mine in southwest China where these samples were taken from in 2012. Six miners fell ill when they entered this mine to clear them of bat droppings and three of them died. They were detected with a severe case of pneumonia found WSJ but could not speak to the researchers who highlighted these issues.
China has further made it difficult for anyone to access the mine and the WIV does not discuss in detail about RaTG13, too.
Experts believe that the WIV will have to be more transparent to clearly rule out the theory that the virus spread due to an accident.
Fauci's Statements Create Furor
Dr. Fauci, who is the Chief medical advisor to the White House and also heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) who had in 2020 claimed that he was a proponent of the zoonotic emergence of the virus, on May 11 stated that the laboratory leak theory could not be ruled out.
Furthermore, on May 25 Fauci told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the National Institute of Health earmarked $600,000 for the Wuhan Institute of Virology over a five-year period to study whether bat coronaviruses could be transmitted to humans. He, however, denied that they were helping them with "gain of function research." AS explained earlier, gain of function research helps in altering pathogens to be more pathogenic or transmissible.
The NIH stopped funding WIV in 2020 after the pandemic took centre stage and the US was being criticised for supporting the institute.
Currently, Republicans in the US are asking for Fauci's termination owing to his shifting positions and revelation of funding WIV, reported CNN.
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