WHAT IS China trying to hide about the origins of the pandemic — and why?
In Wuhan, a World Health Organization team has launched its investigation into the origins of the virus that has infected 105 million people worldwide and cost 2.2 million lives over the past year. The terms of reference for the investigation say it will be “open-minded” and “not excluding any hypothesis” about the origins of the virus. Many scientists have speculated that the virus leaped from animals, such as bats, to humans, perhaps with an intermediate stop in another animal. This kind of zoonotic spillover has occurred before, such as in the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014.
But there is another pathway, also plausible, that must be investigated. That is the possibility of a laboratory accident or leak. It could have involved a virus that was improperly disposed of or perhaps infected a laboratory worker who then passed it to others. Wuhan, with a population of 11 million, is a major transportation hub and a center of virus studies in China, with at least six facilities with BSL-3 laboratories for handling infectious agents. Published papers show that some of these institutions have been very active in coronavirus research. The most active is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where Shi Zhengli leads a research team that has extensively studied and experimented on bat coronaviruses that are very similar to the one that ignited the global pandemic.
Dr. Shi said that when news of the outbreak first became known, she checked her laboratory records to see whether there had been any mishandling of experimental materials. She also asserted that the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus did not match viruses that her team had sampled from bat caves in China. “That really took a load off my mind,” she told Scientific American. “I had not slept a wink for days.”
But that must not be the end of the story. China actively covered up the early stages of the pandemic, concealed the transmissibility of the virus from its own people and the world, and punished Wuhan doctors who expressed worry about it in late December 2019. President Xi Jinping did not warn the public in China or abroad until mid-January.
Since then, Chinese officials and scientists have advanced a host of dubious theories to suggest the origin of the virus was beyond China’s borders: perhaps brought to China by contaminated packaging of frozen food from abroad or from the U.S. military biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., or from mink farms. The disinformation only heightens suspicions that China is trying to distract from or conceal something.
‘Gain of function’ research
To find out if there was a leak or laboratory accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) or another lab, investigators would want to carefully examine research done there, including archived lab notes, records of experiments and data, intra-laboratory communications such as email, as well as bat samples, viral strains and all sequences from the WIV collection to compare them with known genetic blueprints from the pandemic virus. This would require transparency and verification of data and sample provenance. But it has not been forthcoming.
It is known from public documents that Dr. Shi was conducting “gain of function” research on bat coronaviruses, which involves modifying their genomes to give the viruses new properties, such as the ability to infect a new host species or transmit from one host to another more easily. Such research is controversial — a gain of function experiment can create a danger that didn’t exist before. But the research might also help predict how a virus might evolve toward spillover, enabling the development of effective countermeasures such as a broad coronavirus vaccine.
The research carried out by Dr. Shi was financed in part over the years by the United States, China and Europe. Grant documents show the work was aimed at determining the potential for spillover of bat coronaviruses from one species to another. The research involved constructing a series of novel chimeric viruses that would use different spike proteins from some unpublished natural coronaviruses. The ability of the resulting novel viruses to infect human cells in culture, and to infect laboratory animals, was to be tested. This included experiments on mice with cells that are genetically modified to respond as human respiratory cells would.
The WIV also collected thousands of samples from bat caves in China. The work under Dr. Shi was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health through EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based nongovernmental organization whose president, Peter Daszak, is a member of the WHO virus origin investigating team, and is leading a separate investigation by the Lancet.
A critical database went offline
At the core of Dr. Shi’s work is a database at the institute. According to research by DRASTIC, a network of researchers and scientists, this is the most important bat coronavirus database in China. Overall, it holds records of some 22,000 samples and some of their genetic sequences, including for WIV virus sampling trips going back many years. The institute collected more than 15,000 samples from bats, covering over 1,400 bat viruses. The database holds more than 100 unpublished sequences of bat coronaviruses that could significantly help the probe into the origins of the pandemic.
Of particular interest are the full sequences of eight viruses sampled in 2015 in an unidentified location in Yunnan province, which was only recently disclosed. In 2012, six people who were clearing bat feces from an abandoned mine in Yunnan developed an illness with symptoms very similar to covid-19. Three eventually died. The results of the investigation into the cause of their illness have not been fully disclosed. A bat-virus sampling trip by WIV-EcoHealth was underway in nearby locations while these six people were infected. A virus designated RaTG13 was sampled from the mine in 2013 and has been described as the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2. Based on limited information about their sequences, the other eight viruses are very similar to RaTG13 and may hold evolutionary clues.
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A section of the database was password-protected and not accessible. This may well have been to protect the materials so that scientists from WIV could be first in writing scientific papers about the viruses and sequences. But except for that private section, the database was accessible until Sept. 12, 2019, when it became unreachable from outside the institute, according to DRASTIC, which has studied the database usage records. Why then? Dr. Shi has said it was taken offline for security reasons. “We have nothing to hide,” she told the BBC.
In his final days in office, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had been harshly critical of China, issued a fact sheet and statement claiming: “The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” If the U.S. government possesses information to corroborate that statement, it should release it, including declassifying any intelligence.
A second portal of virus databases in China, created by the National Virus Resource Center, affiliated with the WIV, has also gone offline, with the result that all the key virus databases managed by the WIV are now offline.
On Feb. 3, the WHO team investigating the origins of the virus visited the WIV. We do not know what was said. But the goal must be to open the closed doors at the institute. If the WIV had no role in sparking the outbreak, it should be relatively straightforward for Dr. Shi to safely open up the databases to scientists so they can properly understand the evolutionary origins of SARS-CoV-2. The institute should provide all records regarding bat samples, viruses and sequences, with verified information provenance, and eventually, it should be disclosed to all. The origin of the pandemic is of interest to every person on the globe.
We don’t know where the pandemic began. But a major step toward finding the answer is to examine all the relevant databases and laboratory records, including those at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and elsewhere, and the clues they may hold.
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