Four months into the worldwide outbreak of the novel coronavirus, its origin still remains unknown, fueling speculation and complicating efforts to counter it and prevent its recurrence.
In fact, it’s better understood as the CCP virus, since the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and lack of transparency regarding the outbreak have caused or exacerbated much of the grief and uncertainty in its wake.
The lack of evidence on the origin of the virus is especially troubling. Several previously known animal viruses have been found to be genetically similar, but not similar enough. Virologists seem to agree that there’s still a missing link—the original source of the virus that may still be out and about, carrying with it another potential global upheaval.
Experts agree more data is needed, but the most crucial data—tests of animals from the epicenter of the outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan—isn’t forthcoming. To date, the CCP has shown no indication that it intends to provide the data, or even collect it.
Lab Versus Natural Origin
When Chinese researchers examined the genome of the virus, they found similarities to two coronaviruses found in bats that were reported several years ago by Chinese military scientists—not in Wuhan, but in Zhoushan, almost 500 miles away.
The CCP virus was an 88 percent match for the two from Zhoushan.
In particular, two parts of the Wuhan virus—the nsp7 protein that aids its replication and the envelope (E) protein that helps it overcome the immune system—were a 100 percent match for one of the Zhoushan bat viruses.
This is extraordinary, because previous research has shown that each coronavirus strain seems to have its own version of E protein.
The 100 percent match “is really unusual,” Dr. Xiaoxu Sean Lin, a former U.S. Army microbiologist, told The Epoch Times.
“It is a very small protein, but it involves viral particle assembly and interactions with host factors, so when a coronavirus jumps host species (zoonotic [transmission]), it won’t keep the same sequence,” he said via email.
Some experts have voiced skepticism of a lab origin.
A team from Columbia University, University of Edinburgh, University of Sydney, Tulane University, and Scripps Research Institute compared the CCP virus to a number of other coronaviruses, including a recently publicized bat virus (called RaTG13) as well as several coronaviruses found in pangolins. The RaTG13 was a 96 percent match for the CCP virus, while the pangolin viruses were about a 90 percent match.
“It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus,” the team concluded in the March 17 paper published in the journal Nature Medicine.
As the Nature paper noted, much of the CCP virus genome matches the RaTG13 virus, but one crucial part doesn’t—the “spike protein.”
This protein makes up the “little mushrooms” attached to the surface of the virus, making it the most important tool for the virus to invade human cells. The cells of human lungs and other organs are covered with membranes called ACE2. The spike protein has the ability to interlock with the membranes, allow the shell of the virus to fuse with the cell’s surface, and let the body of the virus to invade the cell and destroy it.
While the pangolin viruses aren’t as close a match for the CCP virus, their spike proteins are nearly the same, including amino acids at all six of the most crucial positions in the gene sequence, the paper stated.
The authors argued that because this kind of spike protein developed naturally in pangolins, this is evidence the CCP virus also developed naturally. Furthermore, the paper noted, the spikes on the CCP virus don’t bind to human cells as effectively as those of the SARS virus. If the CCP virus was made artificially, why would it use a spike protein that works worse than another, already known one?
This question is actually not that hard to answer.
Creating artificial viruses with new or enhanced capabilities—“gain-of-function” research—has been done for a variety of purposes and not necessarily to create the most efficient virus. It can be used to probe what new viruses can potentially emerge and what would be their pandemic potential.
“It really depends on how the experiment was designed. What’s their objective in this kind of gain-of-function study?” Lin said in a phone call.
Moreover, despite making the opposite conclusion, “this [Nature] paper’s arguments actually suggested a potential path of lab-engineering,” Lin told The Epoch Times via email.
In the lab scenario, a spike protein that has a potential to work on humans would be taken from a pangolin or a bat virus and grafted onto a different animal coronavirus. The virus would then be allowed to infect cells in lab setting “to select more infectious clones” and then injected in lab animals and allowed to further mutate “to select strains that are of higher transmissibility,” Lin said.
The Nature paper describes a process for how this could theoretically be done, but adds that these particular experiments haven’t been publicized before. Moreover, the CCP virus’s body, or “backbone,” doesn’t exactly match “any previously used virus backbone”—more evidence to support a natural origin, the authors said.
This view, however, rests on assumptions of transparency, something sorely lacking on Beijing’s part, Lin noted.
No Animal Testing
None of the animal viruses so far reported are close enough to be a direct progenitor of the CCP virus, according to Nature magazine.
“The genetic similarity should be higher than reported in these studies before the host can be identified,” the magazine reported, referring to comments by Arinjay Banerjee, coronavirus researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. “He notes that the SARS virus shared 99.8% of its genome with a civet coronavirus, which is why civets were considered the source. If pangolins are the origin of the current outbreak, says Banerjee, it is not the pangolins in these studies.”
The original story pushed by the CCP was that the virus originated at Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. At the end of December, the market was closed, but there’s no indication that any of the animals from the market were tested. There’s also no indication that any animals from the Wuhan area have been taken for testing.
The genetic comparison papers released so far have matched the CCP virus against coronaviruses discovered in the past.
Scientists have repeatedly stressed the importance of animal testing to better understand the origin of the virus. The authors of the Nature paper also acknowledged as much.
“More scientific data could swing the balance of evidence to favor one hypothesis over another,” they said. “Obtaining related viral sequences from animal sources would be the most definitive way of revealing viral origins.”
It could hardly be a lack of resources stopping China from robust animal testing. In fact, one laboratory that has experimented with bats in the past is only about 400 feet from the Wuhan market. Another laboratory, at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), is a two-hour drive away.
In addition, Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli, who is based at WIV, is one of the world’s preeminent authorities on bat coronaviruses and reported the 96 percent match with the RaTG13 bat virus (pdf).
The WIV is also the only lab in China certified to handle the most dangerous viruses, such as Ebola or SARS.
The CCP is usually eager to boost its image by portraying government workers as heroes in a crisis. This time, however, WIV has remained unusually quiet throughout the epidemic. An internal directive leaked online stated that WIV workers were forbidden to talk about the CCP virus, even to Chinese state-run media.
It’s possible that China is conducting the animal tests, but if it is, it’s keeping the results secret, Lin said.
In the absence of solid evidence, Chinese netizens have come up with their own explanations for the virus’s origins, which are often unflattering to the regime.
Some claimed that a female graduate working at WIV, Huang Yanling, was patient zero and had died. WIV denied it, saying she’s lived and worked in other provinces since her 2015 graduation. But Huang’s photo, bio, and thesis were all removed from the Institute’s website, leaving only her name. She also never emerged to dispute the rumors.
An online profile using the name and photos of WIV researcher Chen Quanjiao accused the director-general of the institute, Wang Yanyi, of “frequently” reselling lab animals at the Huanan market and thus possibly leaking the virus from the lab.
Stories of mishandling of lab animals have been circulated on Chinese social media.
Wang denied that such a thing happened at WIV, and Chen put out a statement saying her identity has been stolen and denying responsibility for the online posts.
Shi denied any connection of the CCP virus to the lab in a statement to Chinese media.
“I pledge with my life that the 2019 novel coronavirus has nothing to do with our lab,” she said. “This virus is a punishment imposed on mankind from nature, to condemn mankind’s uncivilized way of living. Those of you who believe rumors or so-called scientific analysis by unqualified researchers, I advise you to shut your [expletive] mouths!”
But in a country accustomed to seeing forced confessions on television, the denial failed to quell the questions.
“For such a huge calamity that may take countless lives, give us facts and evidence, not pretentious statements such as pledging with your life,” one netizen commented.
No Bats, No Pangolins
One reason why many Chinese have been skeptical of the official explanation—that the infection transferred to humans from bats at the Huanan market—is the apparent lack of bats on site. Not only were no bats found at the market, but any bats living in the area would have been in hibernation at that time of year.
No pangolins were found at the market either. The scaly mammals are a protected species, so it’s possible that sellers disposed of them before authorities closed the market; so far, there’s no indication of pangolins being found anywhere in Wuhan.
Moreover, the viruses with the matching spike protein were found in pangolins smuggled from Malaysia to Guangdong Province, 500 miles south of Wuhan. The RaTG13 bat virus was found in Yunnan Province, 900 miles from Wuhan.
Shi has a history of experimenting with mutated coronaviruses, including combining multiple viruses to change the resulting virus’s capability to infect a different species.
In a 2010 paper, she explored manipulating a bat’s ACE2s to make the animal susceptible to SARS. In a 2015 paper, she and other researchers used a bat virus spike protein that didn’t work on humans, grafted it onto SARS, and found that it was then capable of infecting humans while also being resistant to treatment.
Shi is not the only one doing such experiments. But it’s a dangerous business.
“If the new virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory,” said Simon Wain-Hobson of the Pasteur Institute in France, commenting on Shi’s 2015 paper.
In 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama paused funding for gain-of-function research, wary of its danger to biosafety.
The controversy provided an incentive to Shi or other researchers following in her footsteps to keep any further gain-of-function research under the radar. In that case, a likely client for such research would have been the Chinese military, according to Lin.
A post on Chinese social media Douban said that Chen Wei, the People’s Liberation Army’s “top biochemical weapon expert,” recently took over the WIV lab. The report remains unconfirmed.
Shi and WIV didn’t respond to emailed questions from The Epoch Times.
However, the lab has had a military connection since its inception.
The lab was developed with the help of the French government after the 2003 SARS outbreak. Originally, a French architect was supposed to design it, but Chinese authorities switched the work to a local Wuhan architect. French intelligence found the Chinese architect company, IPPR Engineering International, had close ties to a Chinese military subsidiary that used to be on the CIA’s blacklist, according to Challenges, a French business magazine. The lab became operational in 2017.
Whatever the origin of the virus, there still isn’t enough evidence to say for sure, according to Lin. What is clear, however, is that the lack of evidence can be largely blamed on the CCP, while the whole world bears the consequences.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the crime biologist Li Ning of China Engineering Academy was sentenced for. The crime was embezzlement.