Wuhan Lab Leak or Natural? Origin of COVID-19 Still a Question
Was there an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, followed by a cover-up by China?
For most of 2020, many credible scientists and experts argued that the novel coronavirus was of natural origin. This was the widely believed theory, pushed by top experts, media and fact-checkers, who were often found pushing back against the other theory – that the virus did not occur naturally and was a result of human actions.
As of May 2021, this is no longer the case. Over the past few months, there has been growing support for the possibility that COVID-19 originated artificially, possibly in the Wuhan lab that has long been the focus of all discussions over the origin of the novel coronavirus.
On Wednesday, 26 May, US President Joe Biden tasked the country’s intelligence authorities to “redouble” efforts for probing the origins of the novel coronavirus.
He said there is inadequate evidence to conclude whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal host or from a laboratory accident.
WSJ & Dr Anthony Fauci Throw Up Doubts
A rush of events has caused the conversation around the origin of the novel coronavirus (which had never completely died down, much like the virus itself) to come to a head.
This is noteworthy new information since China has said the first confirmed case only occurred on 8 December 2019. Reacting to the report by WSJ, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said it was ‘totally untrue’.
Meanwhile, Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been one of the most recognised faces and experts on COVID-19, appeared to have begun hedging on his previous stance that the virus was of natural origins.
When asked by PolitiFact’s Katie Sanders if he was still confident that COVID-19 had developed naturally, he said he was “not convinced”.
“Certainly, the people who investigated it say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else, and we need to find that out. So, you know, that’s the reason why I said I’m perfectly in favour of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus.”Dr Anthony Fauci
Dr Fauci was referring to the WHO’s joint study with China wherein it indicated that it is more likely the virus has been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal. The study noted that a lab leak is extremely unlikely.
The report, published in March 2021, said it considered unlikely that any substantial transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection was occurring in Wuhan during October and November.
However, it added that no firm conclusion could be drawn about the role of the Huanan Seafood Market in the origin of the outbreak, or how the infection was introduced into the market.
But, at the same time, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom said that the probe into Wuhan’s virology lab had not gone far enough, adding that he was prepared to launch a fresh investigation.
Back in 2020: Sceptics Everywhere
Back in 2020, Dr Fauci was among those who appeared to be confident that the virus was of natural origin.
In May 2020, speaking to National Geographic, Dr Fauci said,
“If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats and what’s out there now, [the scientific evidence] is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated... Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species.”
Apart from Dr Fauci and the WHO, even the US National Intelligence Director’s office, in a statement on 30 April, stressed that the virus wasn’t manmade or genetically modified.
Another analysis by a group of researchers, published by Nature Medicine in March 2020, said that SARS-CoV-2 was not a ‘laboratory construct’ or a ‘purposefully manipulated virus’. Yet another report published by as many as 27 non-Chinese scientists in The Lancet, too, dismissed the possibility of the virus being artificial.
Not Created as a Bioweapon
Early in the course of the pandemic, conspiracy theorists suggested that COVID-19 is manmade and created in a lab as a bioweapon in China. This theory was based on the fact that many of the first patients were linked to the market in Wuhan – which also housed the WIV lab. The lab deals with some of the world’s most dangerous viruses.
What caused this conspiracy theory to gain ground was that the Wuhan lab was engaged in genetic analyses of bat coronaviruses. The result? An unproven and heavily debunked conspiracy theory that scientists at this lab bioengineered the novel coronavirus and released it into the world to create havoc.
According to PolitiFact, this is also similar to what the gain-of-function hypothesis supposes – that a virus, tampered by scientists to make it more deadly or infective, leaked from the Wuhan Institute.
But that’s not the theory that is now gaining ground – experts still say that this is unlikely.
The ‘Lab Leak’ Theory
The possibility that is being more widely considered now is that the virus leaked from the lab while scientists were “poking and prodding and studying” viruses with the aim of developing vaccines, reports CNN, quoting Jamie Metzl, an adviser for the WHO.
There could have been an accidental leak, followed by a cover-up by China.
Reportedly, researchers at the Wuhan lab were using reverse genetics on bat coronaviruses to create viruses not naturally occurring.
However, scientists do not believe that the work the lab was carrying out with bat coronaviruses can be considered gain-of-function, or juicing up of the virus, although they did think it was risky.
Dr Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, told CNN that while it was unlikely that the Wuhan lab had manipulated the virus to make it more contagious, there is a need to gather more information.
While the world increasingly wants a transparent and open probe into the origin, China seems to be creating obstacles in this endeavour. According to report, in the course of the WHO probe, China refused to hand over key raw data on some COVID cases to team.
Moreover, the WHO has been criticised by scientists for not paying enough attention to the lab leak theory in its report.
“We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” a group of prominent scientists wrote in Science Magazine.
So far, there is no tangible evidence to support either the theory that the virus originated naturally or that it leaked from a lab.
Where does that leave us? Well, almost 1.5 years into the pandemic, we know as little about the origin of the virus as we knew when it started, and seem to be retracing our steps on what we believed as solid fact in 2020.
(With inputs from CNN and PolitiFact.)
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