Coronavirus Outbreak: Natural or Lab Leak

As this pandemic stretches the lab leak hypothesis gets stronger
Coronavirus Outbreak: Natural or Lab Leak
File Pic: Aman Farooq/GK

The first case of the SARS-CoV-2 was detected in the city of Wuhan near a wet market shop. The market had a wide variety of animals like bats, pangolins. Initially, it was believed that due to many species of animals being present in the wet market there could have a spillover of virus from bats to the host.

This view was supported by many virologists without taking a closer look at all the pieces of evidence and information. With the cases rising in China especially in Wuhan a group of virologists declared that this is a natural virus and openly rejected any debate around its origin from a lab leak, in Lancet Magazine. This team was led by Peter Daszak who devised and formulated the magazine.

One critical thing to note about Daszak is that he is also the president of the Eco-health alliance, an Independent group that studies and reaches about infectious diseases. If we take a close look at the previous two epidemics of MERS and SARS there is also a stark differentiating factor between the current pandemic and the last two.

When the SARS outbreak happened in China within three months the intermediate host was found. The virus had jumped from bats through Civets and then to humans. In the case of MERS the Camel was the intermediate host and virologists were able to find it within nine months. But in the case of SARS-Cov-2, the intermediate host hasn’t been found yet and it has been over 16 months. This situation makes the case of SARS-CoV-2 a special one. As of now scientists and virologists across the globe are searching for the intermediate host and now some new groups of virologists have claimed that the virus is directly transmitted to humans from Bats. But these different theories haven’t got good support and virologists are still looking for the intermediate host.

The big focus has been around the Wuhan virology Institute, a top research center for the study of coronaviruses. The first case of the SARS-Cov-2 that was reported by the Chinese authorities was found in the wet market and this Wuhan Virology Institute isn’t far away from that. This had led many people quotation the involvement of the institute in this pandemic. But the question remained how this corona ended up in humans. The claim that was made by some virologist about its direct contact seems very rare to happen. The bats that possess coronaviruses are present in Yunnan province in China which is hundreds of kilometers away from the place where this virus was first reported. If this were the case as proposed by many there should have been a constant track of this virus passing to humans from Yunnan to the wet market we should have seen people getting infected with it but there was no such case.

One more important case that many virologists have put forward is regarding the virus protein spike and the ACE2 receptor. When the SARS-CoV-2 enters the human body it binds to the ACE2 receptor through its spike protein. The SARS-CoV-2 has a simple structure just like other members of Betacoronavirus, it has RNA as genetic material and its outer layer is made of proteins that are in the form of spikes. As soon as the virus enters the human body these spike proteins latch to the ACE2 receptor and then enter into the cell to multiply. Now what many scientists ad virologists are claiming is that the fit between the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and the ACE2 receptor is not perfect and this could indicate its natural origin.

Lab Leak

As this pandemic stretches the lab leak hypothesis gets stronger. Initially, most people rejected this lab leak theory but as evidence keeps increasing this all led to some important questions unanswered. Peter Daszak the president of Eco-health funded the research of the coronaviruses at the Wuhan Virology Institute. He is not the only virologist and Wuhan virology institute is not the only such institute where such researches are being carried out. The researchers have been doing experiments on coronaviruses to increase their infectivity and to make them more lethal and transmissible. This type of research is referred to as the “gain of function” experiment. Virologist has been doing these experiments since decades to understand viruses and to go ahead of nature. By creating these viruses virologists end up knowing how a new virus will behave when it will arrive in the human population but at times these experiments can prove fatal if the virus is out of the safety compound of the lab. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, this is what happened as a scientist working on a new coronavirus accidentally escaped from the lab.

All this didn’t come to public notice due to some pressure from everywhere especially those who were associated with the research of such kind. During the early stages of the pandemic in a journal called Nature (British scientific journal), five virologists led Dr. Kristian G Anderson from Scripps Research Institute said “this virus is natural and it doesn’t look at all manipulated or man-made by any means.” In the early days of the pandemic, nearly all virologists leaned towards a natural origin and it could be attributed to pressure from across the scientific world along with various governments to hide all this from coming into the public sphere. These gain of function experiments could come under public scrutiny and all these activities could be stopped.

We have discussed a lot about every aspect but there is one institute that I haven’t mentioned yet and that played a key role in funding this type of research. National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is one of many American centers that studies and conduct research on various illness including infections, viruses, and many more. The NIAID funds these projects and has been doing so for several years for better understanding of viruses and their ill effect on the human. NIAID has the contract to the Eco-health alliance and they further gave it to Shi Zhengli or commonly known as “Bat women” of china. She is a top virologist who has been studying coronaviruses at Wuhan virology institute. The NIDIA led by its director Dr. Fauci facilitated and supervised all these researches. Dr. Fauci himself wasn’t involved in the initial months of the pandemic but as time went on and there were leaked emails of Fauci that included his conversation with international health experts and those in China as well that were covering the issue at that time. That had led Fauci in deep trouble once it became public that he and NIAID have been funding these researches.

There are many perspectives to look at this pandemic but one universally true thing is that this covid 19 pandemic has caused tremendous loss to every person across the globe. But who should be held accountable for this pandemic?

There are many perspectives to look at this pandemic but one universally true thing is that this covid 19 pandemic has caused tremendous loss to every person across the globe. But who should be held accountable for this pandemic?

NIAID and global virologist: A thorough investigation and internal assessment have to be made by virologists who are working on this sort of “gain of function researches”. An escape and the entire world can be at risk. A time has come when these types of researches are regulated and more importantly, they can be made public. The way NIAID funded this reaches and how the virus escaped from the lab has ruined the lives of millions. All the virologists who worked on this project need to be held accountable including American and European who worked closely with their Chinese counterparts.

Chinese Government: When the first few cases were reported in china it was called a new type of pneumonia and Chinese authorities tried to convince the world that it is a small outbreak and all the concerned departments are working to fight the disease. Initially, Chinese authorities denied the breakout of any new disease. The Chinese tried their best to hide it from everyone but when the situation went out of control they had to sound an alarm. But the alarm was very late and concealed all the details of this new illness. This led to SARS-CoV-2 spreading more efficiently and when the world came to know, it was too late and the virus had spread to all major places. The reluctance of Chinese authorities to convey to the world about an outbreak and all possible methods to hide it has put the Chinese government under suspicion.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) team went to China in February 2021 the Chinese authorities didn’t cooperate with the WHO officials and it was revealed by many WHO officials that the Chinese were very restrictive with our movement and they didn’t let us work how we desired. it will be noteworthy to see how and when this pandemic will end but with more and more mutations on our way it will be tough times ahead for everyone and all the governments will be keeping a close eye on the situation.

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