In Galveston, A Cautious Look At Laboratory Leak Theories | Local News

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GALVESTON

For weeks, the pages of national newspapers, websites and cable reports were filled with similar stories.

Headlines are reporting that there is growing concern that COVID-19 originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and escaped by mistake. The theory conflicts with one that the virus emerged in nature and was transmitted from an animal, such as a bat, to human populations.

Both theories lack crucial direct evidence. No bats have been found in the wild infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus; but there have been no confirmed reports of the leak at the Wuhan lab. The origins are still unknown.

Calls for an investigation into the origins of a pandemic that has contributed to the deaths of millions of people, shut down much of the world, stifled economies and consumed billions of dollars are mounting, and even some skeptics of laboratory theory have joined the push.

CHECK THE POSSIBLE

For one of the most prominent names in viral research, the flood of media coverage isn’t necessarily backed by new scientific findings.

“I don’t know of anything new,” said Dr James LeDuc, recently retired president of Galveston National Laboratory, the island’s world-renowned infectious disease research center. “It’s the same answer I would have given you six months ago.”

Last year, LeDuc told the Daily News that, like many, he leans towards the theory that the coronavirus originated in nature. But, he admitted at the time that “sometimes accidents do happen”.

LeDuc is part of a group of prominent experts who say governments and scientists should commit to studying and trying to identify the origin of the virus. Many of these calls came after an unsuccessful attempt by the World Health Organization to identify the origin and somewhat contradictory statements by WHO officials.

“I think we need to keep looking at the facts, follow the science and keep pushing to identify it,” LeDuc said in a recent interview.

The big news about COVID-19 these days is its ability to transform into new variants, which has allowed the virus to continue to spread more efficiently and remain dangerous, he said.

The Galveston National Lab is at the forefront of research to combat variants, LeDuc said.

WHAT CHANGED

Theories about the origin of a laboratory leak of the COVID-19 virus have been around since the virus first appeared in China in December 2019. Initially, any rumors that the virus had leaked from the Wuhan laboratory was dismissed as a marginal conspiracy theory. But the theory took on new life earlier this year and gained even more traction last month.

The inciting incident was the long-awaited release of a WHO report made after a field investigation in Wuhan, China, which aimed to uncover the true origin of the virus.

The WHO report said “the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population.”

Two days after the report’s publication, however, WHO officials began to reverse the report’s firm conclusion, noting that Chinese officials had not been fully open to WHO investigators.

The gist of the reaction to the WHO report was that it did not rule out the theory of laboratory leaks. The investigative reports that followed the WHO report also sparked more questions and more speculation.

For example, in March, an Australian newspaper reported that three researchers from Wuhan “were hospitalized with symptoms compatible with COVID-19 in November 2019”. This report was repeated by NBC News in March and a May article in the Wall Street Journal.

At least one former State Department official has speculated that this group was the world’s first group of COVID-19.

LeDuc said he doubts the sick lab workers mean anything.

“In November in the temperate zone of Wuhan, they have pretty strong winters there,” LeDuc said. “It’s respiratory season. Who knows what they have.

“The fact that three people went to the hospital or contracted respiratory illness during respiratory illness season is intriguing, but it’s certainly not a smoking gun.”

Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist, made a similar observation to NBC News, saying the seasonal illness in China was “certainly not a big, big thing.” Koopmans’ opinion of sick researchers was the only opinion shared by the Journal, which also noted that it was not “unusual for people in China to go directly to the hospital for treatment.”

Reports such as sick lab workers and the speculation that followed are among the reasons why there should be more investigations into the origins of the virus, and why China should cooperate more with the probes, LeDuc said.

“The challenge is going to be to get good transparency from the Chinese government,” he said.

“It’s absolutely essential. But you look at the world, and there are the scientists, who have collaborated throughout history and have continued to do so, and there are the politicians, and they have an agenda.

“I am absolutely convinced that the Chinese have looked closely at laboratories and natural origin. The problem is, they just haven’t shared the information.

Days after the Wall Street Journal report, President Joe Biden said he had asked US intelligence agencies to “redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” on the origins of COVID-19 and report to it in mid-August.

RETRACTIONS AND LETTERS

A massive reset in public opinion on the possible origins of the virus came after Biden called for a renewed investigation.

There were other public accounts. In one case, the Washington Post corrected a February 2020 report that called the lab leak theory a “conspiracy theory.” The Post amended its report to read “the marginal theory” which had been “challenged” rather than “debunked.”

Elsewhere, the medical journal The Lancet added an addendum to a widely shared open letter from March 2020 that also appeared to outright reject the theory of lab leaks. In the letter, 27 prominent public health experts condemned “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 is not of natural origin.”

The addendum stated that one of the signatories to the letter, zoologist Peter Daszak, had a potential conflict of interest that was not initially declared. Daszak’s nonprofit, EcoHealth Alliance, directs US grants to international researchers, including some in China.

More recently, a group of eminent scientists took a different position in a letter to the journal Science about the WHO report on the origins of COVID.

“We need to take natural and laboratory fallout assumptions seriously until we have sufficient data,” the letter said.

The letter cites no new direct evidence, and the Washington Post noted this week that the letter was criticized for giving equal weight to the laboratory leak hypothesis. Most scientists still say the virus likely came from nature to humans, The Post argued.

Meanwhile, a June 15 letter to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine called for peace among researchers until scientific work is completed.

“… [M]this information, the unsubstantiated claims and personal attacks on scientists surrounding the various theories about how the virus emerged are unacceptable and confuse the public and risk undermining public confidence in science and scientists, including those who still lead the effort to bring the pandemic under control, ”the letter said.

WHAT ABOUT THE GALVESTON LABORATORY?

Despite its importance in viral research, the Galveston National Laboratory has remained outside of public discourse on the origin of COVID-19. No lab workers have appeared on the Science letter or other similar open letters calling for further investigation.

Dr Randall Urban, acting director of the Galveston National Lab, said the lab was not directly involved in any of the investigations into the origins of the virus.

“I think it’s important that we understand this from a point of view that this is a very devastating virus, and it’s important to know how it happened now that we are all focused on preparation. pandemic and how we are preparing for the next virus, “Urbain said.

“At LNG, we are not in the investigation,” he said. “We don’t do surveys. We are not part of these surveys. So I can’t really comment on this. We are focused on processing and developing better diagnostic tests and preparing for variants. “

Still, the Galveston Lab is frequently mentioned in articles on COVID because its research is similar and because the Galveston Lab has helped train some Chinese researchers associated with the Wuhan lab.

The renewed discussion of lab leak theories has not sparked any generalized discussion about the wisdom or safety of the Galveston facility. The laboratory has not reported any leaks or serious incidents since it opened in 2008.

When the lab was established in 2008, it formed a community liaison committee, made up of people living in Galveston, to communicate local concerns about lab safety to the medical branch and communicate updates on the lab’s work. to the community.

Two members of the liaison committee who spoke to the Daily News said its meetings with officials in the medical branch had been reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But they said China’s problems, whatever they were, hadn’t seemed to sow distrust of Galveston.

“They are investigating and until then we cannot rely on their hearsay,” Steven Marsh, a member of the nine-person committee, said of the lab leaks.


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