No sooner had the World Health Organisation (WHO) yesterday published its report into the origins of the Wuhan coronavirus, than the Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was making a public statement distancing the organisation from what observers are calling a “whitewash”.
The report, which had been conducted with heavy reliance on Chinese scientists and under pressure from Chinese authorities, concluded it was “extremely unlikely” that SARS-CoV-2 had escaped from a lab, claiming instead it was most likely the novel virus had passed from bats via an “intermediate animal host” before sparking an “explosive outbreak” in Wuhan in December 2019.
With a rare and welcome criticism of the Chinese Government, Dr Ghebreyesus said: “I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing” and insisted that “all hypotheses remain on the table”.
The United States, the UK and 12 other countries (Australia, Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, South Korea and Slovenia) issued a joint statement echoing the Director General’s concerns: “It is equally essential that we voice our shared concerns that the international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.”
The European Union, more meekly, said that it regretted the delays and the “limited availability of early samples and related data”.
Dr Peter Ben-Embarek, head of the WHO mission at the centre of the controversy, defended his report, saying the “zoonotic origins” of the pandemic had been the agreed remit of the investigation rather than a potential laboratory accident. A defence which rather begs the question as to why the investigation was disbarred by design from looking into one of the key possibilities.
Dr Ben-Embarek, for reasons best known to himself, felt moved to offer a rather feeble defence of the Chinese Government’s lack of cooperation.
Of course there are areas where we had difficulties in getting down to the raw data, and there are many good reasons for that. In China, like in many other countries, there are restrictions on privacy laws that forbid the sharing of data, including private details to outsiders in particular. Where we did not have full access to the overall data, this has been put as a recommendation for future studies. So the idea is that, because we didn’t have time or because certain authorisation needs to be given before we could get access to the data, all that could be done in the second phase of studies.
Science journalist Matt Ridley aptly called it a “pure whitewash” when he appeared yesterday morning on Julia Hartley-Brewer’s show on talkRADIO. He pointed out that although the report concludes it’s very likely that an animal carried the virus to Wuhan, this conclusion is at odds with the 20-30 pages in the report which note that 45,000 animals in China have been tested for the virus and none have been found with it.
A lab escape was once dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Back on February 19th 2020, 27 prominent scientists declared in the Lancet: “We stand together to condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” Another group of experts, on March 17th, proclaimed in Nature Medicine: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
Now, though, it is very much regarded as a plausible hypothesis. Matt Ridley, who is writing a book on the subject, and Harvard medical geneticist Alina Chan explained why it is being taken seriously by experts in an eye-opening article in the Telegraph.
They write that, unlike SARS from 2003, SARS-CoV-2 was not found to mutate rapidly in early human cases, suggesting it was already well adapted to infecting human beings. Furthermore, in May 2020, the director of the Chinese CDC announced that none of the animal samples collected from the Wuhan wet market had tested positive for COVID-19.
Ridley and Chan write:
Yet there is little doubt that the pandemic began in Wuhan. All the early cases were in the city and the majority of the first recorded cases in other countries were among people who had travelled from Wuhan. Persistent attempts by the Chinese Government and scientists to play up possible origins in frozen-food imports and pre-Wuhan cases in Europe have been unpersuasive so far.
There is still no sign of an original animal source of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan, or the rest of Hubei province. Horseshoe bats that live in the area have been extensively sampled for viruses for years without SARS-CoV-2-like viruses showing up. Therefore, the strongest connection between such viruses in Yunnan and the human outbreak in Wuhan is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and the fact that it had collected SARS-like viruses from the Mojiang mine.
But this is circumstantial, not direct evidence. Although SARS leaked from a Beijing laboratory twice in 2004, infecting 11 people, there have been no public reports of an accident at the WIV. Moreover, RaTG13 is not SARS-CoV-2: there are significant differences between the viruses. This is why full transparency about all the viruses held in the WIV would be helpful, including all of the SARS-like viruses collected in the Mojiang mine.
Unfortunately, the Institute’s database of more than 20,000 viruses was taken offline around the time of the outbreak for “security reasons”, and the WHO team were not given access to it. The WIV is the foremost laboratory for studying these kinds of viruses in the world, and had collected large numbers of coronaviruses from hundreds of miles away. With no sign of a source in the wet market or animals, the coincidence that the outbreak began in the vicinity of such an institute is too great to be easily dismissed.
The theory was given a boost in January 2021 when the US State Department released a statement saying it had “reason to believe that several researchers inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses”.
More worrying is the prospect that the virus might not just be an escaped sample of a naturally occurring bat coronavirus, but an engineered virus from gain-of-function research. This may explain, for example, why it was already well adapted to human-to-human transmission.
Ridley and Chan again:
We know from published work that Dr Shi and her colleagues were not only analysing the genomes of viruses, they were also manipulating them. This includes the creation of ‘chimera’ or hybrid viruses with genes taken from two different viruses. It also includes the testing of these viruses in ‘humanised’ mice, endowed with a certain human gene.
The practice of building chimera coronaviruses, sometimes leaving no trace of manipulation, is not new. Such experiments have been conducted in select laboratories such as the WIV for years, for the purpose of understanding how novel viruses could spill over into humans. The ultimate goal is to create a universal vaccine for all SARS-like viruses.
The scientists might find it unbearable if they instead caused a pandemic. But they did not find it unthinkable. In a 2015 article co-authored by Dr Shi these words appear: “Scientific review panels may deem similar studies building chimeric viruses based on circulating strains too risky to pursue… The potential to prepare for and mitigate future outbreaks must be weighed against the risk of creating more dangerous pathogens.”
SARS-CoV-2 is not so deadly as the bat virus that killed three of the six miners who caught it directly from the bats in 2012. The WIV held samples of nine bat viruses sourced from that Mojiang mine, one of which, RaTG13 was noted (though without making the link) by WIV researchers themselves to be very similar to SARS-CoV-2.
Could SARS-CoV-2 be an engineered version of those viruses, perhaps made less deadly but ready for human-to-human transmission? It’s one possibility, but without further access to samples and data, repeatedly denied by the Chinese authorities, scientists have no way to find out.
It’s very important we find out soon, though, so we can know exactly what we’re dealing with and what lessons we should learn.