Monday, January 24

Did Covid come from a Wuhan lab? What we know so far | Coronavirus


President Joe Biden ordered US intelligence agencies to conduct a 90-day review of what is known about the origins of Covid-19 and whether it could have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan. So what does this mean for laboratory leak theory?

Has new evidence emerged?

Despite Biden’s announcement and various stories in the American media demanding support, it is growing for the Wuhan laboratory leak theory, the answer is that surprisingly little has changed in terms of good quality evidence, at least in the public domain.

The most surprising new claim in recent days, before Biden’s announcement, was on the Wall Street Journal, which reported that US intelligence agencies were told that three anonymous staff members from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) were ill enough to go to hospital in November 2019 with symptoms that might have been coronavirus.

How reliable is the evidence?

The intelligence related to the three WIV staff members has been described as uncorroborated evidence from a foreign source, that is, it was not obtained, or so far verified, by a US intelligence agency, and was initially analyzed under the administration. Trump.

“It was very accurate,” a source told the WSJ, but added the crucial caveat: “What he didn’t tell you was exactly why they got sick.”

According to the New York Times, not one but two intelligence documents They were produced talking about sick workers, one focused on the three individuals, the second on what was known about the origins of the coronavirus. However, there are several problems with how to interpret this information.

Questions include whether the symptoms observed were from coronavirus or severe flu (or something else) and whether the illness, if it was coronavirus, was related to work in your laboratory, or simply suggests that Covid-19 was circulating in the general population in Wuhan. a few weeks earlier than course.

Biden’s comments, launching the review, are revealing, especially when he said that the US intelligence community does not believe there is enough information to fully understand the likelihood of different scenarios to explain the origin of the virus causing Covid. -19.

Biden also revealed that two of the 18 US intelligence agencies lean toward the theory that it jumped from an animal species to humans and “one leans more toward” the lab theory, suggesting a surprising lack of clarity.

Meanwhile, outside of US intelligence circles, the broad consensus among scientific experts remains that the most likely explanation is that Covid-19 jumped to humans from an animal host in a natural event.

So where are we with the animal host theory?

Much has been made of the fact that no intermediate animal host, between humans and bats, has been identified so far, which has been cited in some places as somehow supporting the theory of laboratory leaks.

The reality is that identifying animal hosts in previous coronavirus outbreaks has been a long and uncertain process. While dromedaries are known to have been an important reservoir for Mers, even now the role of animals in transmitting the virus is not well understood.

The same happened with the Sars outbreak. Weather civet cats were suspected as intermediate hosts, it took years to confirm. In none of the cases was there evidence of a laboratory leak. Thus, the pattern of transmission through an intermediate host remains the predominant one under consideration.

Another problem is that much of the research focus on the origins of Covid-19 so far has been based on the highly specialized field of interpreting the virus’s gene sequences, an area that is less accessible to non-experts. including journalists.

But wasn’t there a World Health Organization mission in Wuhan to study the origins of Covid-19?

In fact, there was. But the terms of reference for that mission, agreed with China, were to study the possible animal origins of the coronavirus, a fact that was well known to the United States and other countries.

It did not include provisions for an audit of the WIV laboratory or to investigate the so-called “gain of function” investigation in the laboratory on viruses, which the Chinese are unlikely to have accepted. During that mission to Wuhan, the researchers spent just three hours in the lab.

However, in public comments, team members were skeptical of the lab leak theory after their visit, based on what they were allowed to see, although that does not rule out that other material has been withheld.

And China, as WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made clear, did not provide all the information many expected, including comprehensive epidemiological data on some 174 early cases.

Why is the theory of laboratory leaks back now?

That’s complicated. The Trump administration’s outright hostility to China and the way it fueled allegations of lab leaks, including an unreliable dossier that was circulating last year, made it a rather tainted source.

The advent of a Biden administration, which is less hostile to China, combined with limitations in the WHO investigation, created an environment in which some have felt able to ask questions about the origins of Covid-19 without appearing to. They buy into the conspiracies of the Trump era.

Yet like the 2012 Benghazi attack, the Wuhan lab leak theory remains a cause of notor for the US amid what is essentially a cold war between the US and China. .

In particular, it has been seen as a stick to beat the Biden administration’s handling of it, especially after the decision to shut down a State Department group that had been investigating the theory of laboratory leaks.

That effort first reported by CNN, was quietly released by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last fall and reportedly quickly sunk into concern that it was part of a politicized effort by the Trump administration to blame China and select facts for the Trump administration. test a theory.

In fact, a source cited by CNN was highly critical of the work being done. “They basically carried it out in secret, removing technical experts from the state department and the intelligence community, and then trying to inform certain senior interagency officials of their ‘tentative conclusions’ even before informing the leaders of the department for which they worked. an investigation was underway. “

That sounds familiar …

In fact it does. Many aspects of the history of the Wuhan lab leaks have echoes of the search for weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, which included efforts to conduct “tailpipe” intelligence analysis for conform to operational theory.

Then, as now, the experts (then weapons inspectors also under the aegis of a UN body) were sent to a highly obstructive environment amid highly politicized debate. Dubious intelligence leaks, some of it provided by third countries, like Curveball’s infamous claims. they were reported without sufficient skepticism and expert warnings were ignored.

So has the lab leak theory become more credible or not?

The bottom line is that it’s still impossible to know for sure, as Biden has said.

Laboratory accidents happen all the time, which means that without further evidence, a laboratory leak is still a possibility. The experience of Sars and Mers suggests that coronaviruses sprout naturally and that understanding their origins is difficult.

China’s obstruction of the investigation into the origins of Covid-19, combined with its own promotion of conspiracy theories about a foreign origin of the disease, makes it appear that it has something sinister to hide.

As the experience of Iraq’s weapons inspectors has shown, the obstruction can be deeply misinterpreted as a suggestion of motive: that is, Saddam Hussein was not concealing weapons of mass destruction but had substantially disarmed himself.

And where we are today, how Adam Taylor put it cleverly in the Washington Post Thursday, it’s nowhere near a resolution.

Although the resurgent chatter may suggest new clues or evidence, the opposite is true. It is the persistent absence of any convincing evidence for or against the theory that has prompted calls for further investigation. “


www.theguardian.com

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