Where did Coronavirus come from?

What credence is there to the theory that Covid-19 escaped from a laboratory and why has Joe Biden ordered an investigation? Tannice Hemming examines what is already known about the origins of Coronavirus and looks at the evidence behind what some are convinced is just a conspiracy theory.

Back in the early days of our discovery of Covid-19, conspiracies abounded. I wrote extensively about the varied theories that sprung up, most egregiously, the idea that the illness was linked to 5G towers. This theory was so pervasive that engineers were threatened with violence and towers were even set alight. 

Anti-Asian sentiments abound

Coronaviruses have been the subject of scientific study for many years and more interest in them was sparked by the SARS and MERS pandemics. The emergence of any new disease tends to prompt suspicions in the minds of many people and Covid-19 is no exception. SARS, ebola, MERS and Lyme disease have all sparked conspiracies that they could be the next biological weapon and SARS and MERS in particular sparked anti-Asian sentiments in particular, in common with Covid-19.

Initially, when suspicions arose about Covid-19 being man-made, it was dismissed by many as just another loosely defined conspiracy, prompted by the fact the discovery happen coincidentally next to the location of the Wuhan lab where viruses like Coronavirus were being studied. The scientific consensus was that genetic investigation showed it was a naturally occurring virus, most likely beginning in bats and then passed on to another animal, which has not yet been identified as the conduit for the zoonotic transmission to humans. 

So why is US President Joe Biden now ordering the origins of Covid-19 to be investigated and does the initiation of this interrogation of the facts mean that there is credence to the theory?

A “sophisticated laboratory modification”?

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is the location of suspicion in many people’s minds – from Steve Bannon to ex-President of the USA Donald Trump, many have pointed the finger at the laboratories contained inside. What lends more credence to the idea was the fact that the Chinese authorities did try to cover up the truth of what was occurring in China, before Dr. Li Wenliang blew the whistle before he himself succumbed to the illness.

China itself originally laid blame for the 2003 outbreak of SARS on the Americans, so the idea that Covid-19 was invented by the Chinese is a role-reversal that many have blamed on anti-Asian sentiment. 

September 14 2020 saw the publication of a report by Dr Li-Meng Yan that laid the blame for the pandemic on a Chinese lab using “sophisticated laboratory modification” creating bioweapons, although it was debunked by multiple researchers. According to MIT’s Rapid Review, the claims it contained were “baseless” and “not supported by the data and methods used”. When accessing the paper you are linked to the refutations along with a warning that “Consistently critical peer review has been received that this record does not follow the norms of scientific rigour or balance, and thus the main claims may not stand the test of scientific scrutiny.” The review by Angela Rasmussen, published in Nature in January concludes “Despite much noise to the contrary, there is no credible evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was ever known to virologists before it emerged in December 2019, and all indications suggest that, like SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, this virus probably evolved in a bat host until an unknown spillover event into humans occurred.”

Three question marks

So what credible evidence is there that the Covid-19 virus could be manufactured and why has Biden ordered this review? There are currently three facts which provide solely circumstantial evidence:

  • The National Institute of Health was funding EcoHealth Alliance’s research into Coronaviruses, via the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which was supplying finance in turn to the Wuhan Institute for Virology on research Forbes suggests “could have added a spike protein, like the one found in SARS-CoV-2, into an ancestral bat virus”
  • Leaks have originated from labs in the past and the Wuhan lab was known to be breaching the safety protocols that applied to Level IV labs
  • The revelation that three Wuhan laboratory employees were known to have been stricken by an illness similar to Coronavirus around a month before anyone else was known to have been officially afflicted. 

This information, when presented with no context, certainly look suspicious and given that the human brain is poised to make links between information, naturally leads one to look for that pattern of collusion; of scandal and conspiracy. 

How to work out the origin of a virus

When I spoke to Senior Laboratory Scientist Dave last year, he said something that has stuck with me ever since. He said that if one was to manufacture a virus, this would be it. That’s not to say he lent any credence to the idea, but the fact that the virus was asymptomatic in some hosts and so transmissible has meant that it has been far more successful than its Coronavirus predecessors, SARS and MERS, which made their hosts far more ill and therefore meant they were too incapacitated (and obviously unwell) to infect enough other people before they died from their infections. 

Back then, Scientist Dave made it clear he didn’t believe the conspiracies and indicated that scientists had already robustly debunked the claims by looking closely at both the genome of the virus and ecological modelling of how the virus behaves and replicates in the natural environment. 

Case records of Covid suggest that the illness was first being spread in October, far earlier than we first thought, so this would tally with the sickness experienced by those lab employees of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

As Coronaviruses have been the subject of study for years, there is a lot of research to draw upon and no-one is more schooled in these viruses than Dr Shi. Zhengli, who is affectionately known to colleagues and friends as “bat woman”. Indeed, the Coronavirus samples she pulled from a bat cave in 2012 were a 96% genetic match to the Coronavirus we are now struggling against, sampled from horseshoe bats in Yunnan (three provinces away from Hubei). She has been searching for the last 17 years of her career for information and insights that could protect against what we’ve been enduring since Covid-19 emerged. 

Working for the Wuhan Institute for Virology, she conducted a thorough examination of the genetic sequences, comparing them with what existed in their “library” in the lab; there was no match. In mid-December 2020, she told the BBC she would welcome “any kind of visit” to rule out a lab leak origin of Covid.

Scientists call for investigation

In May 2021, eighteen scientists published a letter in the journal Science, calling for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19, stating “theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable. Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.”

A joint investigation between the Chinese government and the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that zoonotic origins were most likely, but failed to pinpoint the exact cause of the pandemic. They suggested that laboratory origins were quite unlikely, but Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said there were “questions” to be “addressed by further studies”.

Biden moves to investigate

As Biden said there was no way to conclude one way or another which theory as to the origins of Covid-19 were correct, he has ordered this investigation. In a statement on Wednesday, 26 May he said the IC (Intelligence Community) was split: “while two elements in the IC leans toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter – each with low or moderate confidence – the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”

In response to Biden’s announcement, the Chinese Embassy stated they would support investigations and pointed to “secretive bases and biological laboratories all over the world” for further enquiries. China’s foreign ministry was scathing, suggesting that Biden’s administration had a “motive and purpose”.

Even if the Biden administration was to find that zoonotic origin was the most likely reason for the Coronavirus, however, it’s clear that many will still find that unconvincing. Conspiracy theories will always be popular and the pervasive racism that accompanies ones like these cannot be ignored. 

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