Wednesday, January 19

The theory of the laboratory accident in Wuhan as the origin of the coronavirus leaves the conspiratorial terrain | Society

A group of workers from the Wuhan Health Emergencies team searches the Huanan market in Wuhan on January 11, 2020.
A group of workers from the Wuhan Health Emergencies team searches the Huanan market in Wuhan on January 11, 2020.NOEL CELIS / AFP

The world already knows that COVID-19 is transmitted essentially through the air and indoors, which affects older people and men the most. He has proven that masks make a lot of sense, although they are not infallible, and he has seen how, in record time, the pharmaceutical industry has managed to develop a wide and powerful offering of vaccines to combat it. What the world still ignores in May 2021 is where, when and how exactly this new coronavirus emerged, which has caused the worst pandemic in a century and which, since it was known in December 2020, has reaped almost 3.5 million of lives.

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The first outbreak was detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan and those affected appeared to be linked to a live animal market. The leap of the virus from the animal to humans there or elsewhere has been the main hypothesis since the beginning of the pandemic. The alternative, that the virus, of natural origin, jumped from animal to human at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV, for its acronym in English), a laboratory in that same city that studies SARS viruses, and a leak was recorded. accidental, it had been dismissed as a practically conspiracy theory, which few scientists endorsed and which had, among the rulers, the worst ambassador: Donald Trump. The then US president had built a reputation as a spreader of falsehoods and peppered his comments with attacks on the Xi Jinping regime and the World Health Organization. Confusing this accidental possibility with deliberate manufacturing of the virus as a biological weapon also detracted from its credibility.

Today, however, the theory of the laboratory accident has left the margins of the story to enter the realm of verisimilitude. On the 13th, a group of 18 scientists from elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Yale published an open letter in the magazine Science calling for the hypothesis to be considered “seriously” until there was sufficient data to rule it out. On Monday, when asked by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergology and Infectious Diseases, if he still believed that the virus had developed naturally, he replied: “The truth is, no. I am not convinced of it, we must continue investigating what happened in China ”.

And this Wednesday, President Joe Biden himself has published a statement emphasizing that the two hypotheses are equally possible. As soon as he arrived at the White House, he says, he commissioned the intelligence services with a report on the origin of the coronavirus that he received earlier this month. The intelligence community has reached a consensus around “two probable scenarios”, that of the animal-human contact and the laboratory accident, but has not reached a definitive conclusion. “While two elements in the Intelligence Community lean toward the first scenario and another lean toward the last — each with low or moderate confidence — most elements do not believe that there is enough information to determine which one is more likely than not. other”. Thus, it has asked its agents to redouble their efforts and deliver the most definitive study possible within 90 days.

Security personnel guarding the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in a file photo.
Security personnel guarding the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in a file photo.THOMAS PETER / Reuters

What has happened between the climate of opinion of 2020 and that of now has to do with recently published information about the diseases of some laboratory researchers, and their connection with the deaths of miners in southeast China in 2012. But, on top everything has to do with the passage of time. A year and a half after the appearance of the virus, its real origin remains unconfirmed, which forces us to leave open alternative hypotheses to the jump from animal to human. In addition, Beijing so handcuffed the investigations of the late WHO mission that its poor conclusions, presented in February, further fueled mistrust.

Last Sunday, the day before Fauci made the aforementioned statements, The Wall Street Journal published that three researchers from the Wuhan laboratory fell ill in the fall of 2019 and required hospital care, although in China it is not uncommon to visit hospitals for common or seasonal illnesses. The Donald Trump Administration had already warned about this, with less specificity, in a report on January 15, just days before passing power to Democrat Joe Biden. A data sheet from the State Department indicated that the United States Government had “reason to believe that several researchers within the institute fell ill, before the first outbreak [de coronavirus] be identified, with symptoms compatible with Covid-19 and with seasonal diseases ”. There have been no known advances in determining the robustness of this track.

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The Chinese laboratory is suspect because of its research with viruses obtained from bats, and the investigative thread leads to deaths from pneumonia detected in a mine in the Yunnan province, in southwest China. According to him JournalIn April 2012, six miners fell ill, with symptoms similar to those caused by COVID, after entering the mine to remove bat feces. Tests indicated that they suffered from pneumonia and, by mid-August, three of them had died. Experts from the Wuhan Institute of Virology began to investigate and ended up obtaining about a thousand samples at the mine.

The researchers found nine types of coronavirus in those samples. Among them, one known as RaTG13 and of which last February, at the beginning of the pandemic, they indicated that it had a genetic code 96.2% similar to SARS-COV-2. It is the closest “relative” found so far to the cause of covid, although still at a huge evolutionary distance: the two types separated several decades ago. The virologist Shi Zhengli, the main expert on this type of virus at the WIV, has assured that the miners did not get sick from covid.

In a report released last friday in preprint format in the BioRxiv repository, without review by other experts, the WIV scientists provide details on the coronaviruses found at the mine, stating: “These results suggest that [los coronavirus] that we find in bats may just be the tip of the iceberg ”. However, they argue that the eight that are not RaTG13, almost identical to each other, are only 77% similar to SARS-COv2. They did not show the ability to infect a human cell using the receptor that the cause of COVID uses, according to these researchers. Neither did the RaTG13.

“Although there is speculation that a RaTG13 leak from the laboratory could cause SARS-COV-2, the tests in the experiments do not corroborate it,” the report concludes.

Members of the WHO delegation arrive at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China on February 3.
Members of the WHO delegation arrive at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China on February 3.HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP

But the distrust is still evident. The WHO mission only spent three hours at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and its members were unable to access more than processed data. His report concluded on February 9 that the laboratory accident hypothesis it was “extremely unlikely”, while natural transmission from an animal reservoir was “likely or very likely”. And two days later, on February 11, the director general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that this possibility could not be ruled out and a more exhaustive investigation was necessary.

This Wednesday, a WHO spokesperson responded to this newspaper by email that the organization is now reviewing the recommendations of the report on the origin of the virus at a technical level, and these technical teams will prepare a proposal for the next studies to be carried out. finished. The next investigations would include the hypothesis of the accident of the laboratory, but it is not clear that they will be carried out.

Beijing has always strongly rejected that theory and sticks to the conclusions of the WHO report. “The United States continues to promote the theory of a laboratory leak. Are you concerned about traceability, or are you just trying to distract attention? ”Asked Chinese Foreign spokesman Zhao Lijian on Monday after The Wall Street Journal published his information on the three alleged sick workers of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Although China has not ruled out, at least in public, definitively the idea of ​​a second mission, it is unlikely that it will agree to it if a new visit to the Institute of Virology or other similar facilities is included among its objectives.

China doesn’t just deny the possibility of a leak. He also accuses the United States. In full verbal fencing with Washington on the causes and management of the covid when the pandemic began to reach the United States, Zhao himself – standard of a new generation of Chinese diplomats known as “warrior wolves”, much more aggressive in rhetoric in favor of his country – he fueled last year on his Twitter account a conspiracy theory: that the virus had reached Wuhan in October 2019 brought by US soldiers who participated in the Military Games held in that city.

Even now, Beijing also insists that the United States should allow its own military biological weapons laboratories at Fort Detrick an inspection similar to the one carried out by WHO experts in Wuhan earlier this year.

The accusations and counter-accusations between Washington and Beijing have accompanied the evolution of the pandemic itself, in parallel with the spiraling of relations between the two great world powers. And, dragged into the middle of this dispute, are the scientific works searching for the origin of the covid.

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