Do all the roads lead to Wuhan?

Where did the Covid-19 virus come from? – the controversy surrounding this question has come to the fore anew

By Dilip Laxman

Where did the Covid-19 virus come from? – the controversy surrounding this question has come to the fore anew. In fact, there is now a two-pronged initiative to find out the exact origins of the Covid-19 virus: one led by the US administration, and the other by the WHO which has been jerked out of its previous stance on the issue.

Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan. Johannes Eisele/AFP

The basic query that has to be thrashed out is: is this a natural virus or is it one that has come out of a laboratory leak? In the latter case the presumption is that it was a ‘fabricated’ one, in the sense that viruses of the corona family were being manipulated to make them more lethal and potentially be engineered for use as a bioweapon.

On May 26, US President Joe Biden announced that he had tasked the country’s ‘intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that would bring us closest to a definitive conclusion’ on whether the virus that causes Covid-19 originated from human contact with an infected animal, or from a laboratory accident,’ giving them 90 days to submit a report to him.

This move indicates that the theory that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a Wuhan lab is now being taken more seriously, whereas earlier it has been dismissed as a right wing, racist conspiracy theory propagated by President Donald Trump. It may also be recalled that the latter had stopped the US funding of the WHO, which was about USD 500 M annually, and which President Biden has restored.

For all we know, this is what may have pressed WHO to take up the matter again, especially after a second WHO report failed to come up with definitive answers on the origin of the virus. This was the conclusion of the second WHO team that was sent to Wuhan to investigate at the beginning of this year, nearly one year after the onset of the epidemic. Further, scientists have also been pushing for an inquiry to establish ‘greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic,’ demanding that ‘both possibilities, “natural and laboratory spillovers,” be considered seriously.’

At this stage, it is probably circumstantial evidence more than pure scientific evidence that will have to be relied upon to settle the question of Covid-19’s origin, because it stands to reason that no one would have waited with a silver platter of direct scientific evidence to hand over to the WHO team when it visited the second time. In fact, one of the problems that that team had brought up is that they did not have full and open access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the world class facility where research on coronaviruses and other viruses is carried out.

Some new facts have come up to raise suspicion or fresh interest about the origins of Covid-19, such as, for example, that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) had fallen ill with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and seasonal illnesses, well before the first reported case in early December 2019 and that WIV carried out classified military research including animal experiments on behalf of the People’s Liberation Army.

On the other hand, in Canada’s Parliament, the Conservatives are pushing a motion, sponsored by MP Michael Chong, seeking an ‘explanation on why Dr Xiangguo Qiu and Dr Keding Cheng were escorted out of Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019 and terminated 18 months later by the agency.

‘The Conservatives have long questioned whether that event is linked to the fact that four months before their removal, Qiu had been responsible for a shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.

‘Canada’s Conservatives are demanding that Justin Trudeau release the secret documents he has been hiding from Canadians. These documents are about the transfer of Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in March 2019, and Drs Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng, who had their security clearances revoked and were fired after the transfer.’

Like all roads that lead to Rome, it seems that all trails are leading to Wuhan.

* * *

New nomenclature for variants

There have been more controversies and objections raised about the nomenclature of the variants of Covid-19 that have been emerging, and that have been tagged by the media based on their geographical location of first appearance. As a result, the WHO has decided to rename them according to the letters of the Greek alphabet, and the table below gives details of the new terminology:

* Published in print edition on 4 June 2021

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