Lab-leak suspicions swirl around COVID-19 origins

Experts say speculation based on circumstantial evidence should not distract us from fighting coronavirus, though Wuhan lab-leak theory gains momentum

Published: 11th June 2021 11:36 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th June 2021 11:36 AM   |  A+A-

COVID origin, coronavirus

For representational purposes (Express Illustrations/Soumya Sinha)

By Express News Service

IS SARS-CoV-2 of natural origin or is it engineered? This is the question haunting not just scientists but people around the world that has fuelled conspiracy theories.

Lately, the hypothesis that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, had leaked from the lab of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), in Wuhan, the capital of Central China’s Hubei province, is gaining ground, albeit without credible scientific evidence to show. However, speculation and theories continue.

The original one was that China was in the midst of producing bioweapons to target enemy populations, and this gained ground — at least in the minds of people — considering that the USA and India are number 1 and 2 countries that are most affected by the pandemic. And both the countries are prominent members of the Quad, along with Australia and Japan. China has been vehemently criticising this as a military alliance aimed at containing its maritime influence in the Asian region.

EXPRESS ILLUSTRATION

A counter-charge has also been fired by China at the USA last year saying that, in 2003, the latter had engineered the original SARS virus to target China.

However, one theory that is not so much a conspiracy theory, is that of an unintentional leak after the virus was engineered as part of ‘gain-of-function’ (GoF) research to further understand drug targets for more virulent viruses, in this case SARS-CoV-2. GoF research involves intentionally altering microbes to increase pathogenesis and transmissibility and identify types of hosts that bacteria/ virus can infect. This aims at improved predictions of emerging infectious diseases and developing vaccines and therapeutics.

The SARS-CoV-2 is known to be genetically closest to a virus called RATG13, which is also from the family of coronaviruses and was discovered first in horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus affinis), in 2013 in the Yunnan province in South China. Researchers found that the genome of RATG13 is 96 per cent identical to the SARSCoV- 2 virus, which has so ferociously afflicted the humans through a pandemic that has lasted over one-and-a-half years. One of the differences expressed was that RATG13 did not target the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors in the human cells, like SARS-CoV-2 does so lethally to enter human cells.

This lethal factor in SARS-CoV-2 went on to infect humans to claim 37.64 lakh lives and affect 17.48 crore people across the world. An Oxford study has lately found that bats were not sold in the wet markets of Wuhan, although research on bats was being conducted at the WIV. Was it bioengineering or natural mutation that provided SARS-CoV-2 its lethal virulence? Then there is the question whether it was a leak from the lab that led the virus into the general population; and if it was, whether it was intentionally done. Viruses are known to evolve fast.

The variations in the furin cleavage site in the spike protein of the SARSCoV- 2, is the one in question that has made the virus so deadly, and with so many variants. This cleavage in the protein is the virus’ key to latch on to the human cells and infect them. Last year, in January, a group of Indian researchers from IIT Delhi discovered that SARSCoV- 2’s spike protein had as many as four genetic insertions, which they said would be naturally impossible, indicating that the virus had been engineered to be more lethal than its fellow-viruses in the coronavirus family. However, that was not conclusively proved, and remained a speculation as the preprint of the paper was withdrawn.

Experts say fighting the virus and whether China has played mischief should be taken as two different issues, with focus on the former as priority in the health realm for the safety of mankind. The latter is in the realm of international politics and should be dealt with through a thorough probe followed with appropriate actions depending on whether the virus leak was intentional or not. In the realm of the former, there are developments taking place. Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have published the first detailed atomic-level model of the SARS-CoV-2 “envelope” protein bound to a human protein essential for maintaining the lining of the lungs.

The model showing how the two proteins interact has been published in the journal Nature Communications in June first week. It explains how the virus could cause extensive lung damage and escape the lungs to infect other organs in especially vulnerable COVID-19 patients. The findings can accelerate the search for drugs to block the most severe effects of the disease. A study by a group of researchers from Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA, has evaluated the impact of exposure to framed messages about origins of COVID-19.

They tested four hypotheses. Two focussed on whether it was of zoonotic origin or human-engineered, and two on impacts of beliefs on the origin and the desire to penalize China or support increased funding for biomedical research. The study concluded highlighting the importance of finding ways to combat the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories related to this global pandemic. “The spread of the COVID-19 virus has been an accompanying epidemic of misinformation, eroding trust in science and misleading individuals about the most effective precautions to take to quell the virus and ensure safety,” the study says. Nirad Mudur

FURIN CLEAVAGE
Proponents of the lab-leak theory focus on part of the spike protein of the coronavirus that makes the pathogen more dangerous to humans: the furin cleavage site

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

‘PLAN-DEMIC THEORY’

This theory supports the view that the virus was deliberately engineered and developed in a lab to cause a pandemic. An ex-secret service officer from Israel Dany Shoham was the first to broach the Wuhan Lab-engineered SARS-CoV-2 theory.

The American far-right has latched on to the preprint of research by Hong Kong scientist Li-Meng Yan who. The preprint said that the virus was modified in the lab, and was not of natural origin

Chinese version of ‘Plan-demic theory’ is that it was engineered by the US Army at Fort Detrick

ENGINEERED FOR RESEARCH?

  1. One theory is that SARSCoV- 2 got leaked after it was engineered as part of “gainof- function” (GoF) research to further understand drug targets for more virulent viruses, in this case SARS-CoV-2
  2. GoF research involves intentionally altering microbes to increase pathogenesis and transmissibility, and identify types of hosts that bacteria/ virus can infect. This is meant to aid vaccine & drug R&D

5G NETWORK CONSPIRACY?

Conspiracy theorists in February 2020 used social media groups to spread allegations of a link
between the 5G network and Covid-19 spread. They claimed the Wuhan outbreak was caused by
electromagnetic fields after the rollout of 5G tech

WHAT IS SUPPORTING WUHAN LAB LEAK THEORY?

  • Ongoing research on bats at WIV
  • Bats are known to host a range of coronaviruses
  • The WIV is a few kilometres from the Huanan wet market where the first Covid-19 cluster was detected in November 2019
  • Lab leak theory gained prominence this year after science writer Nicholas Wade’s essay on the subject
  • The idea has gotten momentum after US President Joe Biden called for a detailed probe into the lab leak theory
  • Biden’s call was based on the US government’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which conducted a study in May 2020, stating that the hypothesis of virus leak from the Wuhan lab was plausible and needs to be investigated thoroughly

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