- Jose Carlos Cueto
- BBC News World
An unanswered question.
That remains the origin of the pandemic since it was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan almost a year and a half ago.
Many scientists argue that it most likely occurred after jumping from an animal to a human, but in the last week there is much talk again on the theory that the pathogen could leave a laboratory.
Specifically, from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
For many months this possibility has been described as a conspiracy theory. China flatly denies it.
But Joe Biden, president of the United States, announced an urgent investigation to clear any doubt. British spies, also involved in the investigation, believe that the hypothesis is “feasible”.
The Wuhan laboratory is one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the Asian giant.
What else is known about this center? What are the theories that could be the origin of the pandemic based on?
The Wuhan Institute of Virology was founded in 1956 and is managed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It was one of the first national institutions established after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
It focuses on studies of virology, applied microbiology, and biotechnology.
In recent years, “the pathogenetic study of infectious diseases emerging has become one of the main fields of research, “says the institution on its website.
The laboratory boasts great achievements in animal-based studies of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus and avian influenza viruses.
This center houses the first level 4 biosafety laboratory in China. These types of facilities work with dangerous pathogens that do not have vaccines or treatments available.
They investigate animals, such as bats, and viruses with the potential to become future pandemics.
In these centers, a research technique is usually applied that has been worrying part of the scientific community for some time.
It’s about the gain of function, which modifies functions of a virus to study it thoroughly.
“The gain of function increases the abilities of the pathogen, such as its transmissibility, lethality or ability to overcome an immune response or vaccines and drugs,” explains Richard H. Ebright, molecular biologist from Rutgers University in New Jersey, United States to BBC Mundo. .
“Gain-of-function research creates new pathogens, which do not exist in nature, and which present a risk of creating new diseases, either accidentally or deliberately,” the academic adds.
A chimera virus
In 2015, a multinational group of 15 scientists working with the Wuhan Institute created a chimera virus from two different coronaviruses. The result was a more dangerous version with the potential to become a pandemic.
The study was published in the journal Nature. Among the researchers was Professor Shi Zhengli, known as the “batwoman of China” for her field work with bats to predict and prevent new coronavirus outbreaks.
In other work similar to the one published in 2015, “researchers looked for new viruses in caves in rural areas, brought them to laboratories, they genetically manipulated them and studied them in Wuhan, “Ebright explains.
Among the funders of this project were the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), now led by Dr. Anthony Fauci.
In recent months, the findings of that study have been used as the basis for unverified theories that the coronavirus that causes covid-19 was created in a laboratory, promoted among others by former United States President Donald Trump.
Nature magazine clarifies that there is no evidence that this theory is true and that scientists continue to view an animal as the most likely source of the coronavirus.
Fauci, in a Senate hearing last week addressing the NIH’s involvement in the fieldwork in Wuhan, denied that the funds had been earmarked for the so-called gain of function.
However, he admitted that there were no guarantees that the scientists had finally lied about their experiments. “You never know,” he said.
The US government cut funding for such research in China last year, despite many experts insisting that it is vital to preventing further coronavirus outbreaks.
Biden ordered the recent investigation after receiving an inconclusive report on the origins of the coronavirus, including whether it arose from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.
The accident theory has also been fueled by reports attributed to US intelligence sources that say that three members of the Institute of Virology were admitted to the hospital in November 2019, several weeks before China recognized the first case of the new. disease.
At the beginning of this year, a team of researchers sent by the WHO prepared a report together with Chinese scientists who, without reaching a definitive conclusion about the origin of the virus, pointed out that it was “extremely unlikely” that it had come out of a laboratory.
But countries like the United States or the United Kingdom, and the director general of the WHO himself, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, doubted the research for not being “extensive enough.”
Other specialists were skeptical given the lateness of the investigation and the limitations imposed by Beijing for his execution.
John Sudworth, the BBC’s China correspondent, says there has always been a lot of circumstantial evidence to support both the animal-to-human jump theory and the laboratory escape.
“HThere are many precedents in which laboratory researchers are accidentally infected with the virus they are working on. The Wuhan outbreak occurred practically in front of the doors of the world’s leading laboratory for collecting, studying and experimenting with coronaviruses from bats, “Sudworth recently analyzed.
More control over laboratories
Whether the theory of the origin of the coronavirus is ratified or discarded in the Wuhan laboratory, the media attention in recent days has served for several scientists to warn about the danger from biosafety laboratories.
Those that work with pathogens of different types are classified according to their degree of potential biohazard, with 1 being the lowest and 4 being the highest risk.
About 50 laboratories in the world, including the one in Wuhan, have a level 4.
International controls on the institutions where dangerous viruses are created and studied do not appear to be entirely strong, some scientists say.
“Lax biosafety standards and the absence of a comprehensive risk-benefit assessment around the world are vulnerabilities that we must address,” says Ebright.
The specialist insists that the technique of gain of function, now in the center of debate, does not compensate in a balance between risks and benefits and that there are other less risky ways to investigate pathogens.
Whether or not it is proven that covid-19 came out of a laboratory, “the next pandemic may have this origin” if “discussions between policy and the public about these vulnerabilities are not carried out.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.