- Two incidents of "leaks" of the deadly SARS-CoV virus reported in a Chinese lab in the past
- Clinical research done by Chinese doctors show the new coronavirus did not jump from the Wuhan wet market
- There’s no direct evidence of “patient zero” yet
- The Wuhan biosafety lab, certified in 2017, is a testing ground for dangerous pathogens
- US has cut funding for bat-related coronavirus research, including the one done in the Wuhan lab
- Despite strict biosafety protocols, laboratory-acquired infections are "fairly common", even in the US
DUBAI: Is the coronavirus a laboratory-acquired infection (LAI) that accidentally "escaped” a high-security biosafety facility in Wuhan, China?
It’s a question that has kicked up an unbroken chain of conspiracy theories. That's not to say it’s the wrong question to ask. It's the answer that remains elusive to this day.
It's a claim, a plausible one. Yet, no scientific information exists to back it.
By design, the National Biosafety Laboratory at Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), now at the centre of the global coronavirus controversy, is Asia's leading edge in the fight to eradicate one of the most dangerous diseases of our times.
It's a double-edged sword. A facility anywhere else poses the same untold story: the risk of causing pandemics in case of leaks. This explains the high-security protocols adopted before a Level-4 (highest rating) biosafety lab certication is granted.
WIV was founded in 1956. The attached biosafety lab is its grandchild. It's the only one of its kind in Asia, equipped with ultra-modern facilities to work on some of the world's most dangerous viruses, for which there still no vaccines.
Were certain protocols breached that caused this current pandemic? Or is this jump of SARS-CoV-2 from animals to humans nature's way of pushing us back?
There's plenty of unverified claims and counterclaims swirling around. Social media is rife with talk of a "bioweapons" attack. Behind the veil of uncertainty is the raging storm over the real origins of the deadly illness that has turned the world upside down, and has kicked up deep crevices in the scientific community.
Now, it threatens to tear the world apart, even as we all lick our collective wounds.
Here’s what we know so far:
Q: Were there any viral leaks from research labs in China before?
Yes. At least two previous incidents of SARS virus “escaping” from Chinese labs were reported in 2004, according to The Scientist.
Those two incidents took place at the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing, part of China's Center for Disease Control, as confirmed by the WHO.
A 26-year-old female postgraduate student and a 31-year-old post-doctoral male, were both infected, apparently in two separate incidents, WHO spokesman Bob Dietz in Beijing then told The Scientist.
Q: Can previous leaks be a basis for this big one involving SARS-CoV-2?
Previous cases of lab-acquired infections involving SARS-CoV (1) cannot be used as "evidence" for the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic — just as previous stock market gains cannot guarantee future performance.
It does, however, show the risks involved in a lab setting where human beings deal with highly infectious diseases, including those caused by coronaviruses.
The other routes of infection are percutaneous inoculation (needlestick injuries, broken glass injury, and/or animal bites or scratches). [https://bit.ly/2xfXTCQ]
Q: Did the US fund research in China’s Wuhan’s biosafety lab?
At least one project done on bat coronaviruses in the Wuhan biosafety lab enjoyed US funding support. Up to $3.7 million in federal funds were reportedly spent in research done in Wuhan through the EcoHealth Alliance, with financial support from the US National Institutes of Health, according to US media reports.
It runs the PREDICT project which focuses on animal-related diseases including avian flu, HIV/AIDS, SARS, and Influenza H1N1.
Its website states: "Zoonotic diseases–those that can be transmitted between animals and humans–represent approximately 75 percent of the newly emerging diseases currently affecting people. In the context of globalization and expansive trade and travel, these diseases can travel very quickly, posing serious public health, development and economic concerns."
Q: Did the US government keep the funding?
No. On Monday (April 26, 2020), the Trump administration announced the cuts in federal funding for bat virus studies, following reports linking the research work to the WIV.
Two days prior (Friday, April 24, 2020), the NIH had informed EcoHealth about the funding shutdown.
The agency also demanded that the New York-based research non-profit stop spending the $369,819 remaining from its 2020 grant.
Q: So what's the evidence, so far?
Scientific evidence of the SARS-COV-2's origins, if indeed it's a push-back from nature, may take time to come through.
Virologists need to do extensive work — now more than ever. SARS-CoV-2 is just one of the numerous possibly deadly "zoonotic" diseases. There are more than 100 known virus families, 25 of which contain species transmissible to human beings.
Even within those 25 families, an estimated 1.67 million species are yet to be discovered. That would involve a mountain of lab work, including genetic sequencing and comparisons of samples taken from bats, as well as the hosts (victims).
If it jumped from a lab, it requires an extensive audit of what happened.
Q: What keeps the coronavirus-jumped-from-the-Wuhan-lab 'conspiracy theory' alive?
Scientists can only theorise until verifiable evidence is found to validate — or negate — their theory.
In the case of the SARS-CoV-2 (initially dubbed the “Wuhan virus”, then COVID-19), theories and counter-theories build up alongside the rising death toll across the world.
One scientist recently added fuel to the fire.
On Friday (April 17, 2020), Prof. Luc Antoine Montagnier, a French virologist sparked a maelstrom. Montagnier, 88, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), made an outrageous claim that the new coronavirus was made in a lab.
Prof. Montagnier, stated during a TV interview with a French CNews channel that elements of the HIV-1 retrovirus can be found in the genome of the new coronavirus. He also said elements of the “malaria germ” – the parasite Plasmodium falciparum – can also be seen in the virus’s genome. This caused an outrage among his fellow scientist in France, who dismissed Montagnier as "whimsical", a loose cannon.
Q: What's the reaction to Prof. Montagnier?
For one, the journal Nature pushed back on Montagnier’s claim, citing they know of “no evidence” to state that SARS-CoV-2 is a lab-generated chimera.
Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity department of France's Pasteur Institute, cited studies on the virus's genes showing clearly that it was not a virus synthesized in a laboratory.
"Professor Montagnier spreads whimsical theories," he told the French weekly L'Obs (Le Nouvel Observateur).
"SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, was not created in the laboratory. We see this by studying the genetic heritage of the virus, which has been sequenced by Chinese teams and then verified in many other laboratories, including the Pasteur Institute, which was the first in Europe to do so," said Schwartz.
"This virus is clearly part of the coronavirus family tree. It is close to Sars-CoV-1, with which it has 80 percent homology," Schwartz told Xinhuanet. [https://bit.ly/2W5G7L3]
Q: When was the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) founded? When did it open its high-security National Biosafety Laboratory?
In 2015, WIV was cleared to work with the most dangerous pathogens. It finally received its license to operate as a BSL-4 (the highest level) in 2017.
Being rated a maximum-security biolab rating allows it to study some of the world's most dangerous pathogens. It also marked China’s entry into the league of nations that tinker with life at the genetic level.
China planned "between five and seven” biosafety level-4 labs across the mainland.
Q: What adds fuel to the mystery of its Wuhan virus origin? Was there a cover-up?
One: Clinical research done by Chinese experts reported in peer-reviewed articles show that the virus did not jump from the Wuhan seafood market.
They cited “gaps” in their knowledge of the first animal-to-human transmission of the virus.
Two: a Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, who called the attention of the medical community and Chinese authorities about a severe type of pneumonia cross-infections for which no drug works, was initially silenced and penalized for blowing the whistle. He later died in the midst of the COVID-19 fight. Wenliang, who became famous around the world, was given a posthumous award by Chinese authorities.
Q: What did Nature report about Wuhan Institute of Virology biosafety lab?
In 2017, Nature published an article stating how the Wuhan Institute of Virology's lab was poised to be licensed as Level-4 Biosafety Laboratory (BSL-4) facility. It also reported that the maximum-security biolab was organised with the help of the French and Americans.
“A laboratory in Wuhan is on the cusp of being cleared to work with the world’s most dangerous pathogens. The move is part of a plan to build between five and seven biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) labs across the Chinese mainland by 2025, and has generated much excitement, as well as some concerns,” David Cyranoski wrote in an article dated February 12, 2017.
Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory is located in Zhengdian Scientific Park of Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, CAS), in Jiangxia District, Wuhan, Hubei Province, in central China.
Q: When was the idea for a biosafety lab first conceived?
The idea was born in 2003, after the SARS epidemic broke out. The authorities decided that it is necessary to take action to prepare for the next outbreak of infectious diseases.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) approved the construction of a BSL-4 laboratory in 2003, and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic around the same time gave the project momentum.
Q: Did they get help from outside for the lab's design and construction?
The lab was designed and constructed with French assistance as part of a 2004 cooperative agreement on the prevention and control of emerging infectious diseases.
“But the complexity of the project, China’s lack of experience, difficulty in maintaining funding and long government approval procedures meant that construction wasn’t finished until the end of 2014,” Nature reported.
Q: Why was the BSL-4 rating important — and controversial?
“Some scientists outside China worry about pathogens escaping, and the addition of a biological dimension to geopolitical tensions between China and other nations. But Chinese microbiologists are celebrating their entrance to the elite cadre empowered to wrestle with the world’s greatest biological threats,” Nature reported.
Q: When did the Americans warn about a possible “escape” of deadly viruses from the lab?
In 2017, American experts warned that a virus could escape the Chinese laboratory. In January 2018, the US State Department received at least two cables from US Embassy officials in China.
The messages, sent following several visits paid by the officials to the Wuhan research facility, warned Washington about "inadequate" safety at the lab while conducting risky studies on bats coronaviruses.
Q: How are labs that test dangerous pathogens rated?
Laboratories testing pathogens receive a rating of 1 to 4. This depends on the class of microbes they deal with -- with 1 being the lowest risk and 4 being the highest.
Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, at the biosecurity level was rated 4 (BSL-4).
This means that it can store the most dangerous pathogens, especially the ones for which there’s still a no known vaccine or antidote.
Q: What are the special procedures in a BSL-4 laboratory?
- All persons in the laboratory must wear special protective clothing, some of them put on pressure suits to isolate themselves from harmful pathogens.
- After completion of the work, it is necessary to take a shower and decontaminate all the tools used during the experiments.
- The laboratory building must be located in a separate building or an insulated wing of the medical complex. In addition, it must be equipped with its own air filtration and decontamination systems.
Q: Where is the lab? How many more such labs are planned in China?
Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory is located in Zhengdian Scientific Park of Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, CAS), in Jiangxia District, Wuhan, Hubei Province, in central China.
The country plans to build 5 to 7 BLS-4 class laboratories. Currently, only the Wuhan laboratory has permission to work with the most dangerous pathogens.
Q: From where did Prof Shi Zhengli, the China’s so-called “Bat Woman” and her colleagues, find their bat virus samples?
Prof. Zhengli, and her colleague Prof Jie Cui, are credited for discovering the SARS virus (known as SARS-CoV).
Scientific American states that China’s southern province of Yunnan, more than 1,000 km away, is where Prof Zhengli and her team found the bat coronavirus that caused SARS-CoV (1).
The weather in these areas are considered “sub-tropical”, where the “greatest risk” of coronavirus jumping from animals to humans is likely to happen.
Q: How far is Wuhan from Yunnan?
The distance from Wuhan to Yunnan is 1,887 km (south-west, via G60).
Q: How far can bats fly?
Most bats fly within a few dozen miles before returning to their base (cave). A few bat species can fly distances up to 200 miles (321 km).
There are over 1,400 species of bats worldwide.
Debunking Montagnier’s claims
“He’s wrong,” it stated, citing flaws in the Indian study that Montagnier referred to. It cited that the team from IIT Delhi, among others, had uploaded their manuscript to the bioRxiv preprint research database, but took it down after commentators pointed out numerous errors in their analysis.
Nature Medicine repoted they also analysed the new virus’s genome, and concluded: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
Its not clear, however, what genetic sequencing process or criteria was used by Nature Medicine.
The European Scientist wrote an extensive article dismissing the professor’s claim as “falsehood”.
The publication said it was relatively easy to debunk Montagnier’s claim, i.e. that some nucleotide sequences of HIV-1 can be found in the complete genome of SARS-CoV-2. The publication also acknowledged they are up against “Bradolini’s Law” (so-called “falsehood asymmetry principle”, which states a "conspiracy theory" like this one is hard to debunk).
The publication referred to the complete genome of SARS-CoV-2 (Wuhan), known as the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reference sequence NC_045512.2.
The SARS-CoV-2 genetic code starts as follows:
attaaaggtt tataccttcc caggtaacaa accaaccaac tttcgatctc ... (total: 29,903 characters)
The HIV-1 genetic code starts as follows:
ggtctctctg gttagaccag atctgagcct gggagctctc tggctaacta gggaacccac ...(total: 9,181 characters)
“Looking for similarities could be somewhat complicated: we would have to look at sequences that actually encode for proteins. We cannot start blindly along the sequences.
“In fact, HIV-1 has 39 open reading frames (ORF), which begin with a start codon and end at a stop codon.
“We would have to look for those ORFs and try to find the following codons inside of SARS-CoV-2. We would also have to measure the ‘distance’ (similarity) between the sequences, somehow.”
WHAT IS A BLAST TOOL?
- The Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST), developed by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), helps geneticists finds regions of similarity between biological sequences.
- The program compares nucleotide or protein sequences to sequence databases and calculates the statistical significance of said similarities. For each similarity, it even documents which protein it encodes.
Try the BLAST run test, compare SARS-CoV-2 and HIV-1 genes.
You may check the BLAST run on your own:
- (1) See the complete genome of SARS-CoV-2, click “Run BLAST”.
- (2) On the next page, add HIV-1 (or any other HIV strain) in the Organism text box and then click “BLAST”.
(1) See the complete genome of SARS-CoV-2, click “Run BLAST”. (2) On the next page, add HIV-1 (or any other HIV strain) in the Organism text box and then click “BLAST”. [Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/nuccore/1798174254]
Using exclusively the “BLAST run” to compare the SARS-CoV-2 and HIV-1 genes, the publication said “no significant similarity was found”.
In short: “SARS-CoV-2 is not made of the bat coronavirus and small bits of the HIV virus.”
It also challenged people to check the data on their own: See the complete genome of SARS-CoV-2, click “Run BLAST”. Then on the next page that pops up, add "HIV-1" (or any other HIV strain) in the text box "Organism". Then click “BLAST”.
Q: Does the story end there?
No. The European Scientist also acknowledges some “vague similarities” between some HIV-1 genetic sequences to some other sequences of SARS-CoV-2.
It pointed out that if the “criterion” is changed, there are HIV-1 genetic sequences that would be “vaguely” similar to some other sequences of SARS-CoV-2.
Q: What 'vague similarities' are seen between the HIV-1 and Sars-Cov-2 genes?
This is the interesting part.
The European Scientist asked and answered its own question: “Are there vague similarities? The answer is obviously ‘yes’ as both viruses have a glycoprotein envelope. Even though if they belong to two completely different families – HIV is a lentivirus while SARS is a coronavirus – the two viruses are bound to have ‘something’ in common.”
So, while the HIV has a DNA expression of itself, which is used for replication, it also has an RNA code (which is what gets transmitted between hosts.)
Q: Do all scientists agree with the vague-similarities-only conclusion and the single-criteria BLAST run results?
Not all scientists are convinced. Filippa Lentzos, biosecurity researcher at King's College London, admits that while there is currently no proof for the lab accident theory, there is also "no real evidence" that the virus came from the wet market.
She pointed to some indications "that could point to a potential lab accident from basic scientific research".
"But all of this needs considerable investigation for anyone to say anything with any certainty on the pandemic origins."
“For me,” Lentzos told AFP, “the pandemic origin is still an open question.”
Q: Besides BLAST, how many other genetic sequence alignment software are in use today?
BLAST, developed 30 years ago, is a common but relatively older genetic alignment search tool. There are newer tools, with greater sensitivity. In fact, there are at least 28 other such tools.
One is the CS-BLAST method (sequence-context specific BLAST), developed in 2017. It is described as “more sensitive than BLAST, FASTA, and SSEARCH". Moreover, a “position-specific iterative version CSI-BLAST is more sensitive than PSI-BLAST (developed in 1997).”
The genetic comparison run using a single-criteria BLAST run between HIV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 virus, it turns out, is just the start of what amounts to a genetic sequencing marathon.
Q: Are lab workers at a higher risk of exposure to laboratory-acquired infections?
Yes. Compared to other laboratory settings where there are no aerosolized organisism, those working in high-security labs are prone to infections caused by inadvertent exposures.
In a 20013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology (run the the American Society for Microbiology), a probe into 28 case reports of laboratory-acquired infections (from the 1982 to 2007), showed only 11% of exposures were due to laboratory accidents.
A lion’s share of lab-acquired infections — 147 out of 167, or 88 per cent — were due to "aerosolisation" of organisms during routine identification activities. In only 2 cases (1%) of exposures were “unknown”.
- There’s no direct evidence of “patient zero” yet.
- Chinese clinicians have stated in peer-reviewed publications that the virus did not jump from the Wuhan seafood market.
- Some scientists believe the first human transmission of what is now known as SARS-CoV-2 started as early as September 2019.
- The handling of "whistleblower" Dr Li Wenliang's case was bad PR for China, and has triggered more questions than answers.
- There’s no substitute for open science, which must be allowed to have a say in establishing the origin of this SAR-CoV-2 pandemic
- Until then, only theories (of "conspiracy" or otherwise) about the virus' “Big Bang” moment would thrive
Openness is the currency of good science. Scientists in many countries, including those in the UAE, have successfully sequenced the SARS-CoV-2 full genome.
Operating high-security biosafety labs is — by default — the realm of the world's great powers. China, whose first P-4 lab at Wuhan is barely three years old, is a relative newcomer in this domain.
As WHO has reported, pathogens could sometimes “escape” even from high-security labs. At least two previous reported incidents of leaks from a Beijing lab 16 years ago (2004) involved live SARS-CoV pathogens, the elder sibling of the even more virulent SARS-CoV-2 now makings its deadly run.
This is not to say that other countries, those who have kept such biosafe laboratories facilities much longer, have an immaculate record.
Q: What's the record of the US in terms of lab-acquired infection?
It's no better. Sometimes, strict containment protocols are blithely flouted.
Lab-acquired infections (LAI) in US biosafety facilities are indeed not uncommon. Over a 25-year period from 1982 to 2007, at least one leak per year had been documented — 28 such leaks occurred during that period that directly exposed 167 lab workers, according to one study.
In January 2019, the US Army germ lab was shut down. CDC cited “serious” protocol violations. The CDC reported that an individual partially entered a room multiple times without the required respiratory protection, while other people in that room were performing procedures with a non-human primate on a necropsy table.
Even the best scientists are human beings, too. Born to hypothesise, theorise, make mistakes, conclude. Repeat.
So the real story about the SARS-CoV-2 jump from bats to our lungs (and, yes, brains, too) may remain shrouded in mystery until good science, which relies upon openness, is allowed to run its full course.
It's also true that the best scientific tools available at man’s disposal can either enlighten or obscure...heal or destroy. Yet ultimately, man’s hunger for truth can only be satisfied by the truth itself.
Science propels progress. It fosters man's capacity to innovate, push the bounds of knowledge. It also signifies great power.
Yet our best guess can only be this: bats gave us this virus. Spider Man, however, couldn't have said it better: “With great power comes great responsibility.”