The Murky Secrets behind the Covid-19 Pandemic

Science is based on facts, not hot air. We therefore need to urgently carry out a deeper investigation to uncover the truth behind the origin of Covid-19

By Mrinal Roy

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light some murky secrets of risky scientific research and begged many ethical questions. There are also growing interrogations as to why the origin of Covid-19 still remains unknown some 16 months after the outbreak of the pandemic. Its origin has been the object of the wildest conjectures, raised legitimate questions in the wake of the contested findings of a WHO investigation in March 2021 on the origin of the pandemic and spawned conspiracy theories. It is therefore extremely important to unequivocally uncover the truth behind the origin of Covid-19 in order to better fight the present pandemic and prevent the risks of such deadly and disastrous pandemics in the world in future.

There are basically two theories about the virus which caused the Covid-19 pandemic. The first theory widely broadcast at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak is that it jumped naturally from wildlife to people or natural emergence. There were speculations that it originated in bats and then spread to pangolins and humans. The second theory was that the virus escaped from a laboratory where it was the object of risky research.

Chinese authorities reported at the time that many coronavirus cases had occurred in the wet market in Wuhan where wild animals are sold for meat. It must be recalled that the SARS1 epidemic of 2002 was caused by the spread of a bat virus to civets sold in wet markets and from civets to people. Similarly, the 2012 MERS epidemic was caused by a bat virus which spread to camels and from camels to people.

Ever since virologists gained the tools for manipulating a virus’s genes, they have argued they could get ahead of a potential pandemic by exploring how close a given animal virus might be to making the jump to humans. And that justified lab experiments in enhancing the ability of dangerous animal viruses to infect people, virologists asserted. Pic – s.abcnews.com

The decoding of the virus’s genome showed it belonged to a viral family known as beta-coronaviruses, to which the SARS1 and MERS viruses also belong. This finding gave credence to the theory that, like them, it was a natural virus that had managed to jump from bats, via another animal host, to people. It was the media’s preferred theory.

Deeper investigation

Various developments have questioned this convenient narrative on the origin of a virus which has wreaked such socio-economic and health havoc on the world and caused a death toll of more 3.4 million people across the world.

In a letter published in the leading academic journal Science last week, an international group of 18 renowned  biologists, immunologists and other scientists questioned the conclusions of the  investigation of the WHO team in Wuhan to determine the origins of Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) arguing that ‘although there were no findings in clear support of either a natural spillover or a lab accident, the team assessed a spillover from an intermediate host as “likely to very likely,” and a laboratory incident as “extremely unlikely”.  They added that the ‘two theories were not given balanced consideration as only 4 of the 313 pages of the WHO March 2021 report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident’.They therefore called ‘for a deeper investigation into the origin of Covid-19, including the possibility that a laboratory accident released the new coronavirus that caused the pandemic.’

Spelling out the conditions for such an investigation, they stated that ‘a proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest’. (When will such straightforward benchmarks apply in Mauritius to unequivocally ensure transparency and accountability of governance at all levels?)There must also be ‘a more extensive evaluation of the two leading hypotheses: that the pandemic virus infected people and spread in the population after escaping from a lab, or after jumping to humans from infected animals’.

The signatories include highly regarded scientists who are actively involved in studying SARS-CoV-2 (Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) the virus causing the pandemic.

Manufactured virus

One of prominent signatories of the letter is Ralph Baric, an eminent coronavirus, researcher who has collaborated with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, the institution at the centre of debate over the lab hypothesis. Shi Zheng-li, China’s leading expert on bat viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology learned from and worked with Ralph Baric. In November 2015 they created a novel virus by taking the backbone of the SARS1 virus and replacing its spike protein with one from a bat virus (known as SHC014-CoV). The specific targets of this manufactured virus were human cells grown in cultures and humanized mice. They were able to infect the cells of the human airway when tested against a lab culture of such cells.

The potential danger of a manufactured virus escaping the lab raised alarm bells ‘as no one could predict its trajectory’. There is a long history of viruses escaping from even the best run laboratories. In their research paper Baric and Shi ‘referred to the obvious risks of creating more dangerous pathogens but argued they should be weighed against the benefit of foreshadowing future spillovers’.

Funding trail

In a disconcerting twist to the Covid-19 narrative,Shi Zheng-li continued the work she had started on genetically engineering coronaviruses funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), an agency of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grants according to public records were assigned to the prime contractor, Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance who subcontracted them to Shi.

The reference to conflict of interest in the letter published in Science is quite telling. The WHO team assigned to investigate the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan vetted by the Chinese authorities included Daszak who kept asserting before, during, and after their visit that lab escape was extremely unlikely. This has obviously provoked serious interrogations in the scientific world.

Drawing from extracts of the detailed proposal and purpose of the grants funded by NIAID for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, Nicholas Wade, a science journalist and author in an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic scientists earlier this month indicate that ‘Shi set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells. Her plan was to take genes that coded for spike proteins possessing a variety of measured affinities for human cells, ranging from high to low. She would insert these spike genes one by one into the backbone of a number of viral genomes (“reverse genetics” and “infectious clone technology”), creating a series of chimeric viruses. These chimeric viruses would then be tested for their ability to attack human cell cultures (“in vitro”) and humanized mice (“in vivo”). And this information would help predict the likelihood of “spillover,” the jump of a coronavirus from bats to people.

The methodical approach was designed to find the best combination of coronavirus backbone and spike protein for infecting human cells. The approach could have generated SARS2-like viruses.’ 

Pandora’s box

It cannot yet be stated that Shi did or did not generate SARS2 in her lab because her records have been sealed. Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and leading expert on biosafety adds: ‘It is clear that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was systematically constructing novel chimeric coronaviruses and was assessing their ability to infect human cells grown in cultures and humanized mice. Depending on the constant genomic contexts chosen for analysis, this work could have produced SARS-CoV-2 or a proximal progenitor of SARS-CoV-2. “Genomic context” refers to the particular viral backbone used as the testbed for the spike protein.’

Remarks made by David Baltimore,1975 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine and co-discoverer of reverse transcriptase and a class of viruses that includes HIV that ‘the existence of the furin cleavage site in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 suggests a non-natural origin’ has opened a Pandora’s box of conjectures on Covid-19.

It is imperative to lift the curtain on some of the controversial and risky research being carried out under the radar in laboratories. It must be flagged that ever since virologists gained the tools for manipulating a virus’s genes, they have argued they could get ahead of a potential pandemic by exploring how close a given animal virus might be to making the jump to humans. And that justified lab experiments in enhancing the ability of dangerous animal viruses to infect people, virologists asserted. These lab experimental tweaks on viral capabilities are known as gain-of-function experiments. With coronaviruses, there was particular interest in the spike proteins, which jut out all around the spherical surface of the virus and determine which species of animal it will target.

Uncovering the truth

The upshot of such risky research which tampers with the laws of nature and plays God may have been the cause of Covid-19 and its multiple variants causing successive waves of infection and a rising death toll across the world. It has overhauled and severely disrupted our lives and livelihoods with no end in sight.

Science is based on facts, not hot air. More than ever before, we therefore need as suggested by the eminent scientists in their letter to urgently carry out a deeper investigation to uncover the truth behind the origin of Covid-19 to help win the battle against the pandemic and prevent the risks of such pandemics in future. In order to prevent the risk of dangerous viruses escaping from labs, we also need to set, as is the case for the regulatory oversight over human genome editing and genetic engineering, the strict rules and sanctions to rigorously regulate such risky and arcane research.


* Published in print edition on 21 May 2021

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