Mother Nature is a very structured “bioterrorist.” We have realized this time and again as new diseases have turned up, like Ebola, SARS, and henipaviruses. There are innumerable theories about the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak have been spreading as fast as the virus itself. Many people have focused on the presence of one of China’s most advanced virus research laboratories, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), to suggest SARS-CoV-2 may have originated in a lab. It’s been alleged that people created a new pathogen in the Wuhan lab – and even that it’s been released as a deliberate act of bioterrorism.
So how could we determine definitively if Covid-19 was a naturally occurring or bioengineered outbreak? The simple answer is: it’s complicated.
What does the evidence tell us?
According to a March 17 study by several virologists, including Kristian Andersen of The Scripps Research Institute and Ian Lipkin at Columbia University, concluded the evidence suggests SARS-CoV-2 was not engineered. The study, The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2, concluded based on available genome sequence data, that has now been mapped in several countries, that “it is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus”. The virus sequence was 96% identical at the whole-genome level to a bat coronavirus. It suggested two possible origins: “natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic transfer” and “natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer.”
COVID Source remains a mystery
If we can now presume the origins were natural, the source of coronavirus still remains a mystery. Some lab leak advocates have pointed to 2018 U.S. State Department cables expressing serious concerns over safety practices at the WIV. The likelihood of lab origins hinges on whether SARS-CoV-2 was one of the viruses being studied at the lab. Scientists at the WIV have denied this was the case. Opening up the laboratories to foreign researchers might shed some light, but even that may not quell the doubts given the secrecy with which such labs operate, more so those located in China. The Chinese government laying down new rules that require research on the origins to be vetted has only raised more doubts.
Some Conspiracy Theories
Theory I: A Chinese bioweapon
Stanley Perlman, MD, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology and pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Iowa in Iowa City said, “COVID-19 is sufficiently unlike other viruses to have been created from them, and making a virus from scratch in the laboratory would be “virtually impossible”.”I don’t think we know enough about coronaviruses—or any virus—to be able to deliberately make a virus for release,” he said.
James Le Duc, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology and director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the Medical Branch of University of Texas in Galveston, said that engineering COVID-19 “would have taken a phenomenal amount of ingenuity. People’s imaginations are running wild.”
Angela Rasmussen, PhD, who is an associate research scientist in the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University in New York City, said computer modeling suggests that the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein in SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is suboptimal, “meaning that someone designing an optimal receptor-binding domain sequence probably would not ‘engineer’ the sequence that evolved in SARS-CoV-2,” she said.”Furthermore, there are no genetic similarities with other virus backbones used in any of the known reverse genetics systems for betacoronaviruses. This suggests that this virus was not engineered.”
Furthermore, Anderson questions why anyone would go through the work of creating a new virus when they could simply take an existing virulent pathogen like the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) or MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) coronaviruses and make them even worse, as all bioweapons programs so far have done.
“It doesn’t make any sense to make a new virus that you don’t know can cause disease in humans and try to create a bioweapon out of it,” Andersen said. “That would be a really bad bioweapons person.”
Theory II: Lab release of natural virus
Shi Zhengli, PhD, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab in China relatively close (25 to 35 kilometers [15 to 22 miles]) to the Wuhan live-animal market at the epicenter of China’s outbreak, has extensively published the genetic sequences of isolates from the bat coronaviruses she studies.
None of them match those of COVID-19, Andersen said, something Shi herself confirmed in a recent interview in Scientific American. “If she would have published a sequence for the virus and then this pops up, then we would have known it came from the lab,” Andersen said. “There’s no evidence for this, but there is plenty of evidence against it.”
Le Duc said that Shi’s work on bat coronaviruses has shown that “these viruses exist in nature, and some of them have characteristics that would allow them to be transmissible among humans. The fact that we’re seeing it today is not a surprise to folks that have been working in this field.”
And although “certainly, accidents happen in laboratories,” the high level of biocontainment at Shi’s lab makes it unlikely, he said. BSL-4 labs have the most stringent biosafety protocols, which may include airflow systems, sealed containers, positive-pressure personal protective equipment (PPE), extensive training, and highly controlled access to the building.
Rasmussen said that the most plausible scenario is a “natural zoonotic spillover,” adding that serology studies have shown that some people in China living near bat caves have antibodies against bat SARS-like coronaviruses in their blood, “suggesting that people are exposed to related viruses in the course of their daily lives, so it’s not implausible that SARS-CoV-2 emerged in humans through a chance encounter between a human and a wild bat or some other animal.”
Debate continues till the final word comes out
There is no evidence to prove or disprove a lab leak. In the scientific community, new theories are usually regarded as credible based on the evidence with which they are offered; they aren’t believed to be true until evidence disproves them. That isn’t, however, how the rest of the world operates. This may explain why the lab leak theory appears to be less popular with scientists than it is with politicians, journalists and foreign policy experts. Which side of the debate you stand on may have less to do with a question of science than your political beliefs, even if this still unanswered question is one perhaps best left to the scientists.