It’s been almost two years since COVID-19 struck, and the origin of the virus remains a mystery. Did the virus jump from animals to humans in a natural spillover event, or was it the result of a laboratory leak? A new book explores these and other questions on the source of the coronavirus that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide to date.
“We don’t come to a conclusion, but we do lean towards the lab leak being slightly more likely at this stage,” said UK science writer Matt Ridley, who co-authored “Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19” with Canadian molecular biologist Alina Chan, a postdoctoral researcher specializing in gene-therapy and cell engineering at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University.
“That is not where either of us started. We began thinking that it was probably a natural spillover event, and gradually, as the evidence accumulated in favour of a lab leak and against a wildlife market event, we’ve come to the conclusion that that is slightly more probable.”
Ridley made the comments during a webinar on Nov. 25 about the findings he and Chan provided in their book, which seeks to “get to the bottom of how a virus whose closest relations live in bats in subtropical southern China somehow managed to begin spreading among people more than 1,500 kilometres away in the city of Wuhan,” according to the book description.
It’s a danger to the world that the precise #OriginOfCovid remains a mystery.
Until we can rule out a laboratory origin, we must act as if it may have happened.
— Matt Ridley (@mattwridley) November 27, 2021
Chan, who has been labelled a “race traitor” by pro-Beijing supporters and accused of spreading misinformation after pointing to the possibility of a lab leak in 2020, said she is surprised to encounter people who still today dismiss that hypothesis as a conspiracy theory.
“Even the U.S. Intelligence Community has said that a lab origin is a plausible origin of COVID-19,” she said at the webinar, hosted by Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
On Oct. 29, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence published an assessment saying that although the Intelligence Community is divided on the most likely origin of COVID-19, all agencies assess that “a natural origin and a laboratory-associated incident are both plausible hypotheses for how SARS-CoV-2 first infected humans.”
Chan said proponents of the natural origin theory failed to find any direct evidence that the virus crossed from animals to humans and caused the pandemic that began engulfing the world in early 2020.
“The Chinese scientists who have been sampling 80,000 animal samples have told us they have found no trace of SARS2-like viruses,” she said.
“Despite covering thousands of animal samples across the wildlife trade from 2017 till today, the only SARS2-like viruses found have been limited to only three pangolin coronaviruses, and yet we know there were no pangolins sold in Wuhan markets leading up to the pandemic.”
Rescuing the lab origin hypothesis from being condemned by experts as a conspiracy theory demanded the ingenuity and determination of numerous scientists, journalists and sleuths whose stories are described in our book.
— Alina Chan (@Ayjchan) November 17, 2021
Ridley said the World Health Organization (WHO) acted under the influence of Beijing in the early stages of the pandemic and ignored warnings from Taiwan that the virus could spread from human to human.
When a WHO team travelled to Wuhan in January 2021 to conduct an investigation, they followed the direction of the Chinese regime, he said, even holding a press conference endorsing the “ludicrous” suggestion from Chinese scientists that the virus arrived in Wuhan via frozen food, “magically failing to infect anyone in the source country or the source farm or along the way or in any other city’s wet markets.”
Ridley said even though he and Chan lean toward the possibility that a virus of natural origin was brought to the lab “and then leaked out through an incident,” they are inclined to think that the virus “may well have been engineered before it was released.”
He said they came across documents from 2018 that detailed how EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S. based non-profit health organization, had planned to collaborate with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) to “essentially make them [novel coronaviruses] easier to grow in human cells in the laboratory so as to be able to study them better.”
According to the book, one of those documents was released in September by Drastic, a group of analysts focused on COVID origin research whose members have published numerous academic papers, articles, blog posts, and Twitter threads on the subject. It outlined how EcoHealth Alliance head Peter Daszak requested a $14.2 million grant from the Pentagon in March 2018 to fund research with EcoHealth’s collaborators in Wuhan and elsewhere.
“The application was ultimately unsuccessful, but its contents laid bare their extensive roadmap for collecting and experimenting with SARS-like viruses with pandemic potential,” the authors wrote.
Daszak’s proposal was rejected on the grounds that “although the approach potentially involved gain-of-function research, it did ‘not mention or assess potential risks of Gain of Function (GoF) research and DURC [Dual Use of Research Concern].’”
The book notes that the 2018 document described plans for something that Daszak denied in 2020—that wild Rhinolophus bats (horseshoe bats) were to be kept and experimented on at the WIV.
“It was revealed that by that time, the EcoHealth Alliance and its collaborators had already found more than 180 unique SARS-like viruses across approximately ten thousand samples,” the authors wrote.
“In other words, this early 2018 proposal told us that the EcoHealth Alliance and WIV were in possession of a growing semi-private collection of SARS-like viruses; they had intended to expand their recombinant virus infection experiments across a range of cells and animals; they had also delineated a workflow for identifying novel cleavage sites and inserting these into novel spikes and novel SARS-like viruses in the lab.”
Chan said GoF research, which seeks to increase the transmissibility or the severity of disease caused by a pathogen so that “you can predict how wild natural viruses can evolve to spill over and cause pandemics,” doesn’t pay off.
“When you weigh the risks versus benefits, the risk of creating dangerous pathogens in the lab is that they could leak and actually cause a pandemic, whereas the benefits are really unclear,” she said.
Ridley said lab leaks have occurred over the years even from laboratories designated as biosafety level 4—the highest level of biological safety.
He said the lab leak hypothesis can easily be disproved if China is willing to be transparent about the work being done at WIV at the time of the virus outbreak.
“All they have to do to disprove that is open their files and show us exactly which samples of which viruses they were dealing with in the laboratory—all of their sequences, all of their histories, where they came from, and what experiments were done with them.”