We need to know the truth about the Wuhan lab-leak theory if we want to avoid another pandemic

Once dismissed as a conspiracy theory, the allegation that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan is gaining renewed attention

We need to know the truth about the Wuhan lab-leak theory if we want to avoid another pandemic

V Venkateswara Rao

President Biden, on May 26, ordered a closer intelligence review of what he said were two equally plausible scenarios of the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic - “whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal, or from a laboratory accident.”

Once dismissed as a conspiracy theory, the allegation that Covid-19 originated in a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan is gaining renewed attention. Three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report.

If the lab-leak theory turned out to be true, China would be caught in violation of an international agreement it has signed onto. The United Nations’ Biological Weapons Convention prohibits not only the use, but also the development and production of biological weapons. China acceded to the Convention in 1984.

United States top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci told lawmakers, in a recent senate committee hearing, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology received funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) amid rising concerns over coronavirus origins. According to Fauci, $600,000 were earmarked for the institute in Wuhan over a period of five years to study zoonotic viruses and whether bat coronaviruses could jump onto human beings.

The Hill, a US digital publication, reported, “Fauci noted that although the NIH did fund a project at the Wuhan lab, it was not meant for ‘gain of function’ research into human-made superviruses”, but to investigate bat viruses that could infect humans in future.

At the Senate hearing, Fauci reportedly told: “I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done, and I’m fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China. However, I will repeat again, the NIH and NIAID categorically has not funded gain of function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute.” The Gain-of-function research refers to the serial passaging of microorganisms to increase their transmissibility, virulence, immunogenicity, and host tropism by applying selective pressure to a culture.

The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has no ‘credible natural ancestor’ and was created by Chinese scientists while working on ‘gain-of-function' research in a Wuhan lab, according to a Daily Mail report citing a new study. The report claimed that the scientists took a natural coronavirus ‘backbone’ found in bats and added a new ‘spike’ which turned it into deadly and highly transmissible SARS-CoV-2. British Professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr Birger Sorensen authored the new 22-page paper which is set to be published in the Quarterly Review of Biophysics Discovery, as per Daily Mail.

The sharpest commentary on the lab leak theory has taken the form of media criticism from US journalists and contrarian liberals like Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Chait. They have tried to explain how a theory that was always circumstantially plausible - given that the outbreak started more than 1,000 miles from the bat habitat where similar viruses have been discovered, but just a stone’s throw from an important laboratory studying coronaviruses.

The scientific community is divided over how plausible it is that the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab. However, the lab-leak theory is gaining more traction among the scientific community. Even Dr Anthony Fauci now says he is ‘not convinced’ the virus emerged naturally. Last month a letter in Science magazine from 18 senior virologists and other experts - including a close collaborator of the Wuhan lab at the centre of the debate, Ralph Baric, Professor in the Department of Epidemiology, The University of North Carolina - demanded that such a hypothesis be taken seriously

There are now renewed calls made for the World Health Organization to be allowed to fully investigate the origins of the outbreak, following reports that British agents believe it is "feasible” the pandemic began with a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

If we are to avoid another pandemic, we badly need to know the truth.

( V Venkateswara Rao is an alumnus of IIM, Ahmedabad and a retired corporate professional. Views are personal)

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