Confused debate over origin of COVID-19 distracts attention from actual research


Illustration by Qianli

From genetic signatures to personal testimonies, evidence is growing to support the theory that the COVID-19 virus emerged from nature, while the hypothesis of a laboratory leak remains unfounded, according to studies and scientists.

Last week, 21 scientists from universities and research institutes around the world published a critical review on the possible origins of SARS-CoV-2 on the Zenodo preprint server. The paper, which is still pending peer review, reviewed the existing scientific literature on both hypotheses.

Citing the history of emerging diseases, epidemiological data and genomic information, he concluded that a substantial body of scientific evidence points to a zoonotic origin of the virus, while there is currently no credible evidence of a leak of the virus. laboratory. The Wuhan Institute of Virology in Hubei Province has been touted by some Western scientists and governments as a possible source of the coronavirus.

“There is no evidence that the first cases had a connection to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, nor any evidence that the WIV owned or worked on an ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 before the pandemic,” says the study. He added that the lab leak hypothesis stems from the coincidence that the virus was first detected in Wuhan, where a large lab that studies coronaviruses is located.

The problem with the lab leak hypothesis is that it’s almost impossible to verify or disprove. As it cannot be conclusively ruled out, room is left for doubt and speculation, according to the study. However, focusing on an unlikely lab leak scenario distracts scientists from more serious and urgent research. “Failure to thoroughly investigate the zoonotic origin through collaborative and carefully coordinated studies would leave the world vulnerable to future pandemics,” the study said.

On July 5, a study by Chinese scientists posted to the bioRxiv preprint server looked at the mutation spectrum of SARS-CoV-2 and found it to be 99.9% identical to that of RaTG13, the closest relative. of the COVID-19 virus detected so far. . RaTG13 is found in horseshoe bats.

In addition, the mutation spectrum of SARS-CoV-2 is 99.3% identical to that of RshSTT182, another close relative of the COVID-19 virus found in a different species of horseshoe bats in Southeast Asia. South East.

These results indicate that SARS-CoV-2 evolved in a host environment – very similar, if not identical, to RaTG13 and other bat coronaviruses – that is difficult to duplicate under arbitrary cell culture conditions in laboratory, according to the study.

Overall, the international scientific community leans towards the idea that the COVID-19 virus has passed from animals to humans, possibly via an unidentified intermediate host.

However, the hypothesis of a laboratory leak has been rekindled as foreign politicians and media claim that staff at the Wuhan institute had flu-like symptoms and may have been infected with COVID. -19 in November 2019. The claims were based on an unverifiable intelligence report.

In June, Australian virologist Danielle Anderson, the only foreign scientist working at the Wuhan lab before the outbreak, told Bloomberg that no one she knew in the lab was sick at the end of 2019.

The institute had set up a procedure for reporting symptoms related to pathogens handled in the laboratory. “I was tested for the coronavirus in Singapore before I was vaccinated and had never had it,” Anderson said.

She added that many of her colleagues from Wuhan traveled to Singapore at the end of December 2019 for a meeting on the Nipah virus and that there was no mention of any disease sweeping the institute.

Tong Yigang, president of the College of Life Sciences and Technology at Beijing University of Chemical Technology, told a press briefing in March that rumors of three institute staff members were falling ill was the result of another poorly reported incident. These were actually positive COVID-19 test samples from a hospital that were submitted to the lab for research, he said.

Tong, who was a member of the WHO mission to China to investigate the origin of COVID-19, said the team investigated the rumor and found that no staff at the institute had been sick.

In 2019, the institute and a hospital in Wuhan collaborated to monitor influenza epidemics. From January 2019 to January 2020, scientists collected 1,001 samples and submitted them to the lab for research in March 2020. They found that four samples collected in January 2020 were positive for influenza and COVID-19. “They were hospital patients, not WIV staff (members),” Tong said.

“Science, not speculation”

Last week, two dozen scientists published an open letter in the medical journal The Lancet stating that SARS-CoV-2 most likely came from nature and not from a laboratory, based on a genetic analysis of the new viruses and well-established evidence of other coronavirus-related illnesses.

“Science, not speculation, is essential in determining how SARS-CoV-2 reached humans,” the scientists said. “It’s time to lower the heat of rhetoric and turn on the light of scientific research.”

David Relman, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University in the United States, told an online seminar last week that one of the reasons for the natural overflow and leakage hypotheses of laboratory are both contemplated is that the “immediate ancestors” and “intermediate host” for the virus are still unknown.

He added that more research should be done to anticipate the next pandemic and create a more effective response.

Relman said it was troubling that the investigation into the origin of the virus had become deeply politicized. It has come to a point where it is “reckless and unnecessary” to share an opinion on the origin, as many people have strong opinions on the most likely scenario, he said.

A Beijing-based microbiologist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the discussion of the origin of the virus had become “chaotic and toxic” due to scant data, a lack of confidence in existing scientific investigations and of some foreign politicians blaming China for political reasons.

“Scientists have debated a range of original hypotheses since the start of the epidemic, and the origin associated with the laboratory was neither new nor convincing,” the expert said.

“In high science, ideas are swept up and flipped all the time – it’s a messy and error-prone process. But, a good quality of rational scientists is that they are willing to self-correct and change your mind when new evidence is presented. “

The microbiologist added: “The politicians and the media that launch all the new findings and opinions will only make public discourse on the origin of the virus more confusing and frustrating.”

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