Probe Coronavirus origins
China refuses to admit that the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic escaped from its labs. However, scientists believe that the virus was man-made and possibly leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan. Surprisingly, the World Health Organisation is giving China benefit of doubt by stating that the evidence was not extensive enough. — Sandhya Jain
More than a year after strenuously resisting the notion that the virus (Sars-CoV-2) behind the COVID-19 pandemic was man-made and leaked from a laboratory in China, Dr Anthony Fauci, adviser to the Biden administration on the disease, finally conceded the need for an investigation into its origins (May 24, 2021). Speaking to Fox News, he said, “I think we should investigate what went on in China…”.
Since news of the pandemic was announced on December 31, 2019, scientists have believed that the virus was engineered and possibly leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Then US President Donald Trump was convinced of this hypothesis and publicly dubbed it the “China virus”, while World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus insisted as recently as May 2021 that the evidence was not “extensive enough”.
Fauci spoke a day after the Wall Street Journal reported that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology had fallen sick and were hospitalized in November 2019, citing a hitherto secret U.S. intelligence report. (Intelligence on sick staff at Wuhan lab fuels debate on COVID-19 origin, May 23, 2021) Beijing has admitted that the first confirmed case was a man who fell ill on Dec. 8, 2019.
However, China is adamant that the virus did not escape from its labs, and countered that the virus may have originated from a lab at Fort Detrick military base in Maryland, US. Shi Zheng-li, Wuhan Institute of Virology’s top bat-coronavirus expert, insists the virus didn’t leak from her laboratories. She told the WHO-led team that visited Wuhan that all her staff had tested negative for Covid-19 antibodies and there had been no change of staff on the coronavirus team.
British journalist Nicholas Wade laments the political agendas of governments and scientists have “generated thick clouds of obfuscation.” (The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?, Science.thewire.in, May 5, 2021) There are two theories about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 or SARS2: One that it jumped naturally from wildlife to people, the other that it escaped from a lab.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology was a prime suspect. Initially, some scientists supported the theory of natural emergence in the letter to the Lancet (February 19, 2020). The Lancet letter was organized by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York, which had funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This conflict of interest was concealed from Lancet readers. Daszak was also a member of the WHO team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
When the WHO commission visited China in February 2021, Beijing was unable to offer evidence that the virus had emerged naturally. It is pertinent that SARS1 and MERS viruses left huge footprints in the environment; the intermediary host species (bat to civet to human) of SARS1 was identified within four months and of MERS (bat to camel to human) within nine months. But even 15 months after the SARS2 pandemic began, Chinese researchers could not trace either the original bat population or intermediate species to which SARS2 might have jumped, or any serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to December 2019.
So did SARS2 escape from a lab? The spike proteins in coronavirus jut out of its spherical surface and determine which species of animal it will target. Virologists began studying bat coronaviruses after these proved to be the source of the SARS1 and MERS epidemics, in order to understand what changes in a bat virus’s spike proteins would cause it to infect people.
Shi Zheng-li and her team visited the bat-infested caves of Yunnan in southern China to collect a hundred different bat coronaviruses. They teamed up with Ralph S. Baric of the University of North Carolina and focused on enhancing the ability of bat viruses to attack humans to “examine the emergence potential (to infect humans).” In November 2015, they created a novel virus by taking the backbone of SARS1 virus and replacing its spike protein with one from a bat virus (SHC014-CoV). This manufactured virus could infect the cells of the human airway in a lab culture of such cells.
The SHC014-CoV/SARS1 virus is called a chimera because its genome contains genetic material from two strains of virus. If SARS2 virus was created in Shi’s lab, its direct prototype would have been the SHC014-CoV/SARS1 chimera. Baric and Shi defended their risky research for its potential benefit of foreshadowing future spillovers. However, Nicholas Wade argues, the value of gain-of-function studies (to increase lethality) in preventing SARS2 epidemic was zero and the risk catastrophic if SARS2 virus was generated in a gain-of-function experiment.
Wade says that Baric perfected and taught Shi a method for engineering bat coronaviruses to attack other species (human cells grown in cultures and humanized mice). These lab mice were genetically engineered to carry the human version of a protein called ACE2 that studs the surface of cells that line the airways. Returning to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Shi continued genetically engineering coronaviruses to attack human cells.
This is undeniable because her work was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grant proposals are public record and specify exactly what she planned to do with the money.
The grants were made to Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, who subcontracted them to Shi in 2018 and 2019. Shi was tasked to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells. She would take genes coded for spike proteins possessing a variety of measured affinities for human cells, from high to low, insert these spike genes one by one into the backbone of a number of viral genomes (“reverse genetics” and “infectious clone technology”), and create a series of chimeric viruses. These would be tested for their ability to attack human cell cultures (“in vitro”) and humanized mice (“in vivo”). This information would help predict the likelihood of “spillover” or jump of a coronavirus from bats to people.
This approach could have generated SARS2-like viruses and may have created the SARS2 virus itself with the right combination of virus backbone and spike protein. But this cannot be stated conclusively as Shi’s lab records have been sealed. Certainly she was on the right track to have done so, and her project was funded by the NIAID.
On December 19, 2019, before the pandemic became public, Daszak in an interview lauded researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology for reprogramming the spike protein and generating chimeric coronaviruses capable of infecting humanized mice: “Some of them get into human cells in the lab, some of them can cause SARS disease in humanized mice models and are untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals and you can’t vaccinate against them with a vaccine”. He added, so “if you are going to develop a vaccine for SARS, people are going to use pandemic SARS, but let’s insert some of these other things and get a better vaccine.”
Insertion of other things meant an element called furin cleavage site, which increases viral infectivity for human cells. Daszak meant that once you have generated a novel coronavirus that can attack human cells, you can take the spike protein and make it the basis for a vaccine.
News of the pandemic broke a few days later. Daszak knew of Wuhan Institute’s work in making bat coronaviruses infectious to humans and its inability to protect its researchers from infection because it had not been able to develop a vaccine. Instead of informing the public health authorities, he began a campaign against the lab leak theory.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology had a BSL4 lab, but State Department inspectors who visited it from the Beijing embassy in 2018 were not satisfied with its security standards. BSL4 labs are uncomfortable to work in for various reasons, and much of Shi’s work on gain-of-function in coronaviruses was performed at BSL2 safety level, as stated in her publications and other documents. This posed a high risk of infection to laboratory staff. Richard H. Ebright, molecular biologist at Rutgers University and expert on biosafety, insisted that “this work never should have been funded and never should have been performed.”
What is remarkable about the SARS2 virus is that from its very first appearance, it was well adapted to human cells, unlike SARS1 which went through many hosts before it could attack human cells. Further, its genomes are remarkably uniform (the hallmark of lab cultures). Then, the furin cleavage site is a tiny part of virus anatomy that determines its infectivity.
The spike protein has two sub-units, S1 and S2. S1 recognizes the virus’s target, a protein called angiotensin converting enzyme-2 (ACE2) on the surface of cells lining the human airways. S2 helps the virus, once anchored to the cell, to fuse with the cell’s membrane. Thereafter, the viral genome is injected into the cell, hijacks its protein-making machinery and forces it to generate new viruses. This invasion cannot begin until the S1 and S2 subunits have been cut apart. The furin cleavage at the S1/S2 junction ensures the spike protein will be cleaved in exactly the right place. Of all the known SARS-related beta-coronaviruses, only SARS2 has a furin cleavage site, and this seems to be the result of a gain-of-function (to increase infectivity) experiment.
Wade concludes that though Chinese authorities did not sponsor SARS2, they zealously concealed the nature of the tragedy and China’s role in it. They sealed the records at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and closed down its virus databases. The US funded Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance to do gain-of-function research with coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If the SARS2 virus did escape from the Wuhan Institute, the NIH will have funded a deadly experiment that took over three million lives worldwide, overriding a moratorium on funding gain-of-function research. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, or both, created a loophole to fund Shi’s research.
The cumulative evidence thus suggests that the SARS2 virus could have been created in a lab, from which it escaped, due to poor safety standards. In the absence of definitive proof, readers will have to draw their own conclusions.