Wednesday, June 29

The Wuhan Lab Leak Theory Has More to Do with Politics than Science | Science Editor Robin McKie

IIf Joe Biden’s security staff are up to the task, a new report on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic will be placed on the president’s desk this week. His team was given 90 days in May to review the origins of the virus after several US scientists indicated they were no longer sure of the source of Sars-CoV-2.

It will be intriguing to learn how Biden’s team answers the critically important questions that still surround the origins of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. Did it arise due to natural viral spread from bats to another animal and then to humans? Or was it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology? And, if so, has it been enhanced to make it especially virulent?

These are important questions, to say the least. If we want to prevent another pandemic, it would be very useful to know how this one started. However, given the paucity of new information that Biden’s team will have unearthed in the past three months, while Chinese authorities have continued to provide little additional data, concrete answers are unlikely to be provided this week.

Although allegations of a leak from the Wuhan institute were aired by Donald Trump and roundly rejected by the Chinese, the claim was given little credibility until May, when 18 prominent scientists sent a letter to the magazine. Sciences in which they stated that both the spill and leak theories were equally plausible. They also accused a recent World Health Organization investigation in Wuhan of failing to give balanced consideration to both scenarios.

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News that the new US administration was taking the lab leak theory seriously triggered an onslaught from commentators, who have since alleged that the scientific establishment has been covering up the mistakes of Chinese scientists. Among these accusations was one from Sir Richard Dearlove, former MI6 director, who claimed that “some scientific journals flatly refused to publish anything that did not agree with Chinese opinion.”

The main evidence to support a laboratory leak is based on the failure of scientists to identify the intermediate animal that picked up the virus from bats and passed it on to humans. In addition, the Wuhan institute houses a laboratory led by virologist Shi Zhengli, who traced the origins of bats from the latest Sars coronavirus epidemic.

His team specializes in collecting coronavirus. Thus, one of the world’s coronavirus research centers was located in the city where Covid-19 first materialized, a coincidence that some proponents of the conspiracy find too much to accept.

Zhengli has rejected claims that she had been working to improve a new virus to make it more virulent or that she or her staff had been infected with a new coronavirus they had collected, a view supported by a recent review by scientists in the journal. Cell: “Despite extensive contact tracing of the first cases during the Covid-19 pandemic, no cases related to any laboratory personnel have been reported at the WIV [Wuhan Institute of Virology] and all the personnel in Dr. Shi Zhengli’s laboratory were said to be seronegative for Sars-CoV-2 when the test was performed in March 2020, ”he says.

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The fact that Sars-CoV-2 is highly transmissible between humans has also raised suspicions that it was genetically enhanced. This notion is discarded by Professor David Robertson of the University of Glasgow virus research center.

“Yes, the virus is transmitted by asymptomatic carriers and that is perfect for human transmission. So how does a natural virus like that emerge? After all, it is very good at infecting humans. But it is not just a human virus. We find it in pangolins. It goes from humans to mink very easily and has infected deer in the US It is not a human-adapted virus. It is what we call a generalist or promiscuous virus ”.

However, some high-level scientists, including Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, took the possibility that Covid-19 stemmed from a lab leak very seriously. As he makes clear in his recent book, Spike: the virus against the people, his initial (horrified) reaction to the emergence of Covid-19 was that he might have escaped from a virus research facility. Only intensive consultation with other researchers caused him to change his mind.

“As things currently stand, the evidence strongly suggests that Covid-19 emerged after a natural flood event, but no one is yet in a position to rule out an alternative,” he said.

This point is supported by Professor James Wood of the University of Cambridge. “I think there is very strong evidence that this is due to natural side effects, but that argument just doesn’t suit some political groups. They promote the idea that Covid-19 was caused by a laboratory leak because such a claim diverts attention from mounting evidence that biodiversity loss, deforestation, and wildlife trade increase the dangers of spills. natural, are the real dangers we face from pandemics. . “

In other words, playing with viruses in laboratories is not a dangerous activity. The real threat comes from the wildlife trade, the demolition of rainforests, and the clearing of wilderness areas to provide land for farms and to gain access to mines. As vegetation and wildlife are destroyed, countless species of viruses and the bacteria they harbor are released to search for new hosts, such as humans and domestic livestock. This has happened with HIV, Sars, and most likely Covid-19.

And that, for many scientists, is the real lesson of Covid-19.

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