Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Origins of COVID-19

Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar discusses the search for SARS-CoV-2’s origin and the lab-leak theory

In this episode of Worldview, our Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar takes a look at the global search for the origins of the coronavirus, and why the controversial lab-leak theory just won’t go away.

Why is the question on the Origins heating up again now ?

It has been 18 months since the first few cases of the SARS-CoV-2 was reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan. After all that, 168 million cases worldwide, three-and-a-half million deaths, the focus is returning to where the virus emerged from, for three distinct reasons:

This week, at its annual executive meeting beginning May 24, the World Health Assembly reviewed a report commissioned by the WHO to look into the zoonotic origins of the virus globally. The 120-page report  on China that was put together by a team of experts jointly conducted by scientists concluded that the possibility of an animal-man transmission or food-chain transmission was more likely than that of a lab-leak, but more research was necessary to pin down the origins of the virus.

This week, on May 26, U.S. President Joseph Biden announced that he was unsatisfied by the inconclusive report put together by U.S. intelligence agencies on the issue, and that he was asking them to redouble efforts to decide whether the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.

But perhaps what has really reopened the debate, especially for the scientific community is an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences written by acclaimed Science writer Nicolas Wade that has made a case for why the theory that SARS-CoV-2 is in fact a laboratory made virus, the product of research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was funded by the U.S. National Institute of Health, and led to what was called “Gain of Function” research, should not be dismissed.

In the article, Wade made several assertions:

1. That it has been a year since the original theory of a bat-animal-human transmission from the Wuhan wet markets, and yet no evidence has been proferred by China of the animals involved. In comparison, the origins of the SARs virus that hit China in 2003 and the MERs virus that hit the Middle East (West Asia) in  2012 were traced to a horseshoe bat, and a dromedary camel respectively, fairly soon after by genome sequencing. In this case, there appear to be no leads to the animals that first brought SARS2 to humans.

2. That the lab leak theory had been dismissed too early in the pandemic, essentially because of scientists who were compromised or had a conflict of interest, or simply did not want to admit that such research could be so dangerous

3. Wade specifically pointed to joint research carried out by Wuhan Institute’s Shi Zhengli and University of North Carolina’s Ralph Baric in 2015 that focused on the ability of Bats to infect humans, where they re-engineered a coronavirus in a lab. The funding of the studies by the U.S. were subsequently cancelled, but as late as January 2020, the U.S. State Department had inspected the Wuhan facilities as part of its funding procedures.

4. And finally Wade asked, if Covid-19 had come from bats , that are not native to Wuhan, why it had not infected any other animals or humans handling it along its travels, at least 1500 kms away

Wade concluded that Neither the natural emergence nor the lab escape hypothesis can yet be ruled out, but that the lab theory seemed more likely. He also said that given that the US National Institute of Health which was headed by Dr. Fauci at the time had funded Dr. Zhengli’s research, that neither China nor the U.S. had an interest in shedding too much light on jointly funded experiments that could raise uncomfortable questions on research ethics and biowarfare.

These are explosive conclusions, but unlike last year, the lab-leak theory is not being dismissed as easily.

What is India’s position on the origins of the virus issue?

India has consistently called for more investigation, but has been clear that it is wrong to stigmatise any country by naming a virus on the basis of its origins

On May 28, India issued a statement, its second so far, calling for WHO to conduct next phase studies into the WHO-China team’s report. In an indirect criticism of China that limited access to the team that was only able to visit Wuhan for about 4 weeks, from mid January 2021, India called for “full co-operation” from all stakeholders.

What did the WHO report say?

The WHO report placed 4 hypotheses: and gave for and against statements against each being a possible pathway of emergence

1. direct zoonotic transmission (also termed: spillover)

2. introduction through an intermediate host followed by zoonotic transmission

3. introduction through the cold/ food chain

4. and introduction through a laboratory incident.

The team concluded 1 was likely 2 was extremely likely 3 was possible but 4 was extremely unlikely

India is also watching the U.S.’s report closely, but has stayed away from commenting- or wading into the U.S.-China tensions on the issue.

The government had its own enquiry earlier this year, when it emerged that the Bangalore based NCBS had also conducted research on bat viruses in Nagaland that looked at zoonotic spillovers. The study published in 2019 was funded by two universities with funds from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and also credited collaboration from Dr. Zhengli at the Wuhan Institute. According to sources, an inter-ministry enquiry was conducted into the study that concluded there were lapses, and new norms are now being prepared.

Most of all, India and other global leaders must seek to study the origins of the virus conclusively, commit to ensuring that scientific research is not manipulated for weaponization, and build safe standards for the future. That will be a political and diplomatic imperative as well.

Book Recommendations:

This week I asked my colleague The Hindu’s Deputy Science Editor Jacob Koshy for some book recommendations..here they are: Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen, Pale Ride on the Spanish Flu by Laura Spinney, and Chinmay Tumbe’s Age of Pandemic.

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