There is growing public support for the global scientific community fully exploring the possibility the coronavirus may have emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, causing the global outbreak that killed more than 3.7 million people worldwide.
The theory of laboratory leaks was set aside in public scientific discourse in the early days of the outbreak, after the first cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, were confirmed in the Chinese city in December 2019.
In the following months, observers said, the hypothesis was perniciously linked to the administration of former US President Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric against China and the xenophobic framing of the pandemic, causing an apparent creepy effect between the scientific community.
“The question of whether the origin of a laboratory accident was caught in this hyper-politicized context,” Stephen Morrison, director of the Center for Global Health Policy at the Center for Strategic Studies, told Al Jazeera J International.
“When Trump was instrumentalizing the issue as part of a campaign against China and Asia, people didn’t want to join. And so they kept their distance.”
The marked increase in public support for fully researching the theory comes as a result of a global health study commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Wuhan, burlat by several prominent Western powers and scientists, so sadly insufficient and relying on data collected by Chinese officials.
The February report said it was “likely very likely” that the virus would emerge through natural zoonotic transmission, or from an animal to a human, while concluding the theory that it accidentally leaked a laboratory was “extremely unlikely.” China has repeatedly denied that the lab was responsible for filtering the virus.
Virologists and scientists in relevant fields who recognize the possibility that the virus may have leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan and support comprehensive and transparent research differ greatly in their likelihood of considering either scenario.
Many argue that the theory that the outbreak began by animal to human transfer is still more likely. Others say there is no direct evidence available to say one scenario is more likely than the other. It is further debated whether the sequence of the virus genome prevents human manipulation in a laboratory.
However, the recent shift in perspective includes U.S. government infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, who last year largely fired the idea, saying that science “strongly indicates” that the virus arose naturally.
More recently, he said he was not “convinced” that the virus did not come out of a laboratory in Wuhan and supported further research.
Last week, in a weird one public statement detailing the thinking of the U.S. intelligence community and calling for further investigation, President Joe Biden said the agencies “have come together around two likely scenarios”: zoonotic transfer and accidental leakage of Wuhan laboratories.
Although two elements of the (intelligence community) lean towards the first scenario (zoonotic) and one leans more towards the second (laboratory filtration), each with low or moderate confidence, the most elements do not believe that there is enough information to assess that one is more likely than the other, ”said the statement, which directly cited parts of an unpublished intelligence report.
On May 30, the Sunday Times reported that UK intelligence officials had changed their view of an accidental leak from a Wuhan lab, calling it “feasible.”
“Both remain viable”
Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, said little has changed in terms of scientific evidence since the virus genome sequence was first published in January 2020.
He said there is “no safe basis for assigning probabilities relating to the natural accident hypothesis (animal to human) and the laboratory accident hypothesis.”
“In particular, all scientific data related to the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 and the epidemiology of COVID-19 are equally consistent with a natural accident origin or a laboratory accident origin,” he said. in an email to Al Jazeera. “That was already clear in January 2020 and it has been clear at every moment from January 2020 to the present.”
Ebright, who was one of 21 international scientists who outlined what a comprehensive “interdisciplinary” research in Wuhan should look like in a open letter in March, it was said that the origin of the coronavirus “can only be answered through forensic investigation, not through scientific speculation.”
Meanwhile, several scientists have said they still believe humans are unlikely to have manipulated the virus before the outbreak. Robert Garry, a microbiologist at Tulane University who was part of a March 2020 study that said the virus was more likely to emerge from nature, told National Public Radio (NPR) in late May who considers that the evidence still largely favors these findings.
“I am more convinced than ever that this is a natural virus,” he told the news organization.
On May 14, 18 leading biologists studying the pandemic published a letter in the journal Science, which called for further research, saying that “accidental release from a laboratory and zoonotic overflow remain viable” origin scenarios.
Experts criticized the WHO-commissioned investigation, saying the two theories lacked “balanced consideration,” noting that only four of the 313 pages in the report dealt with the possibility of a laboratory accident.
Others have cited circumstantial evidence that they say they support any theory.
In the case of zoonotic theory, virologists have long pointed out that the wildlife market in Wuhan, which sold a wide range of exotic animals in nearby areas, would be an ideal place for zoonotic spillage. , responsible for past coronavirus outbreaks, including the coronaviruses that caused previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS. Finding the species responsible for the spread of these viruses can take years.
Meanwhile, Shi Zhengli, a prominent scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, wrote in a statement to Science magazine last July that it was impossible for the virus to leave his lab, saying his team “had never been in contact he had not even studied this virus ”and all had tested negative for coronavirus antibodies. However, he noted at the time that the lab had not done genome sequencing on all the virus samples it had collected.
In support of the theory of laboratory accidental leaks, observers have done so pointed out the extensive study of new bat viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Prevention and Control (WHCDC), noting that the former was known to possess the closest related virus to the coronavirus it caused. the current outbreak; arguing that there were valid questions about laboratory safety standards; and taking note of the Chinese authorities have deleted the information throughout the outbreak.
Some intelligence officials have done the same as supposed questioned the transparency of so-called “function gain” research conducted in China, which may involve intentionally increasing the transmissibility of a virus to study its evolution.
On May 23rd reported the Wall Street Journal that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became ill enough with COVID-19-like symptoms to require hospitalization in November 2019. Skeptics have noted that the diseases occurred during the regular flu season.
On Thursday, Fauci called on China to publish the medical records of these researchers.
Change of administration
However, Jon Lieber, the US managing director of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said the biggest change surrounding the acceptance of the possibility of laboratory leak theory has been a change in the U.S. administration, saying Trump’s lack of credibility had a creepy effect on scientists and fueled “blind spots and biases from media porters.”
“Including social media, which banned several accounts from talking about it on Twitter and Facebook or tagged people pushing misinformation,” he told Al Jazeera. “I think the real failure of the scientific community, the media and others was not able to take this seriously because they didn’t like the messenger.”
Last week, a Facebook spokesman said the company “would no longer remove from our applications the claim that COVID-19 is artificial.” The decision was made “in light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts,” the spokesman said.
Still, Leiber said the change of heart should not be considered a claim for the Trump administration.
“It’s a total failure of Trump’s White House,” he said. “If they had any credibility, if they had the ability to convince anyone of anything, they could have exposed this as a story of legitimate origin a year ago.”
For Biden, the decision to issue a statement calling for additional investigation serves an internal purpose: not to appear “weak in China” and to avoid Republican criticism of the 2022 congressional midterm elections, he said. Mathew Burrows, Director of Atlantic Council Forecasting, Strategy and Risk Initiative.
Meanwhile, posting the statement during the World Health Assembly also re-informed Beijing and the WHO, he said.
“The United States is once again a WHO player,” Burrows added. “So I think they want to harden the WHO so that they don’t lean too much towards China.”