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The theory that the coronavirus escaped from a Chinese lab located in Wuhan has attracted renewed interest.
On one side of the debate are infectious disease experts who argue that the virus is a product of “zoonotic spillover,” or the process in nature when a pathogen travels from animals to humans, with some virologists reporting last year that it was a close relative of a virus found in horseshoe bats. On the other side of the debate are the scientists calling for a close investigation into the theory that the coronavirus could have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where some researchers specialize in the study of coronaviruses found in bats.
The WIV also holds one of the largest collections of bat coronaviruses in the lab that first identified the virus. Some scientists, such as Steven Quay, founder of the biotechnology company Atossa Therapeutics, believe that the virus may have been genetically engineered to be dangerous, a form of scientific research called gain-of-function. Quay argued in the Wall Street Journal that genomic mapping of the virus suggests the bond with the specific supercharging protein was too rare to happen without manipulation in a lab.
Meanwhile, some virologists, such as Dr. Angela Rasmussen at the Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science and Security, maintain that we may never know where exactly the virus came from, “but most of the data we do have points heavily toward natural origin."
The public has increasingly called for a thorough investigation into the origins of the pandemic as well as China’s possible intention to weaponize the virus. The following are pieces of evidence still missing that scientists and others following the controversy say would settle the debate about the genesis of the pandemic.
Full access to Wuhan labs and all data compiled and stored there
To reach a conclusion to this debate, investigators want to see all of the raw data Chinese virologists gathered about the coronavirus when it was first detected in early 2020 before the disease began spreading from person to person.
“It would be necessary to obtain access to the facilities, ability to access all notebooks, all database records, freezer samples, the ability to interview all personnel from groundskeeping to maintenance to security to lab work or to administrative personnel,” said Dr. Richard Ebright, a chemical biologist at Rutgers University and one in a relatively small group of experts who have questioned the natural origin theory since the start of the pandemic.
The Chinese government shut the doors of the WIV to outsiders looking for answers last year. When a team of international experts gathered by the World Health Organization was permitted to travel to the institute in January 2021, after months of stonewalling, China’s government impeded the team’s ability to do its job. Two scientists were unable to enter China at the last minute, while 13 other scientists were forced to quarantine for two weeks in Wuhan. They were finally permitted to visit area hospitals, speak with their Chinese counterparts, and visit some labs at the Wuhan institute. They still did not get access to all of the raw data collected by virologists at the lab that would point to the pathogen's origin, according to National Geographic.
China may have engineered the virus to be dangerous, according to Ebright, who said China has to "open its books" in order to clear its name.
Permission to interview all Wuhan lab researchers and staff
Ebright said that he wants permission from the Chinese Communist Party to interview “all personnel from groundskeeping to maintenance to security to lab work or to administrative personnel."
Investigators also need access to all employee medical records stretching back to 2019 in the lead-up to the discovery of the virus genome, which would show whether people working at the WIV were exposed to COVID-19 before the virus began circulating widely in 2020. The presence of coronavirus antibodies in employees would mean that the virus was manufactured in that lab, Ebright said.
Freedom to speak openly with the virologist who led the discovery of COVID-19
Dr. Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California Berkeley, said he wants to speak with members of the research team at the WIV who published the first partial genome of the new coronavirus in early 2020. Shi Zhengli, a renowned researcher of coronavirus vaccines in bats, led the team at the WIV in mapping the new coronavirus genome that would provide scientists all over the world with a snapshot of the pathogen. However, the lab’s first genomic sequencing map excluded the crucial bond between the virus and the protein that made it so infectious.
“If we had one question that we could ask [Shi Zhengli], if China would allow us to ask her any question, it would be, ‘Why did you not include the [specific protein sequencing] in your paper?'" Muller said. “All we want is permission from China for one virologist to ask another virologist just that question and see if she can come up with a plausible answer, because nobody can imagine a plausible answer for that."
If Shi refused to provide an answer for why she excluded such a vital part of the virus's mutation, that would suggest that her lab had a hand in engineering the virus, Muller said. He added that the Chinese Communist Party has muzzled Shi from speaking freely about the lab's research practices, indicating that the government may have intervened in the study of this particular coronavirus.
Muller, who co-wrote the argument for the lab-leak theory with Dr. Quay, said the “very unlikely combination” of the coronavirus with a specific supercharging protein, which made the disease dangerous from the start, is “just too funny a coincidence,” and could be a cover-up for the Chinese government’s risky research practices.
Nothing — we may never know
Rasmussen wants an inquiry into the possible leak to continue while simultaneously searching for a host animal that could explain how the virus traveled to humans. She acknowledged that they might never get the answers they need from Chinese scientists to pinpoint the cause of the pandemic.
“More than a year later, we still don’t know exactly what happened," Rasmussen wrote. "Though governments and news organizations have focused more attention recently on the notion that the virus leaked from a lab, it’s unclear that we’ll ever identify a theory that satisfies everyone as to how SARS-CoV-2 emerged."
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Original Author: Cassidy Morrison