Once shunned as a conspiracy theory by scientists, news agencies, fact-checkers, the “Wuhan Lab Leak” theory is back in the limelight. Many experts strongly believe that SARS-CoV-2 was developed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
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President Biden recently ordered US intelligence to intensify efforts to determine the origins of Covid-19, noting the possibility of the virus leaking from a lab in Wuhan that specializes in coronavirus studies. China said the lab leak theory is absurd.
Advocates of the theory have argued that SARS-CoV-2 is a man-made virus, artificially developed by the scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
While some call it China’s deliberate attempt to make a “bioweapon”, others recognize the case of an accidental leak where the virus may have escaped and spread to the Wuhan market, identified as the place of the first known case of Covid-19.
In an article, former New York Times reporter Nicolas Wade claimed that the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), headed by Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, had allegedly funded gain-of-function (GoF) research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
GoF research is based on manipulating and adding new functions to the naturally occurring virus that it did not earlier have. It is done to study the possible evolution of viruses and their impact on humans.
Upon countering the charges in one of the US Senate hearings last month, Dr. Fauci denied these funding allegations, arguing that the “NIH has not ever, and does not now, fund ‘gain of function research’ in the Wuhan Institute.”
However, the NIH has admitted to giving grants to EcoAlliance, a non-profit organization that further passed the funds to the Wuhan Institute.
The Secrecy Around The Wuhan Lab Leak
The Wuhan Institute of Virology first came into the limelight after the 2002 SARS outbreak. It has published research since then on coronaviruses and discovered that the horseshoe bat species are natural reservoirs of coronaviruses.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, scientists from the Wuhan lab discovered many new coronaviruses during a 2012 incident when some miners fell sick and three of them died with a mysterious illness when exposed to a copper mine that is a home to bat guano.
Since then WIV has been carrying out extensive research on bat coronaviruses. The institute has repeatedly highlighted “the need to prepare for viruses potentially spreading out of their natural reservoirs into human communities”. WSJ’s attempt to investigate the said bat mine was later blocked by the Chinese authorities.
The Wuhan institute houses the largest virus bank in Asia which preserves more than 1,500 strains, as claimed by its website.
WIV is also the place of China’s first biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) lab that has been in operation since 2018. BSL-4 is the highest level of security for research laboratories that recommends maximum containment for a study of life-threatening diseases for which no vaccine has been developed yet.
According to a report by Nature, the lab was developed with the assistance of the French under an agreement between the two in 2004. Chinese scientists also undertook training in the French city of Lyon before taking independent charge of the lab.
Such BSL-4 labs are in operation around the world, maximum in the United States and Europe.
China’s Response To Wuhan Lab Theory
The more the world gets closer to finding the truth, the more China hits back. A top Chinese diplomat on June 11 reportedly said it was absurd to try to claim that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab.
Yang Jiechi also said China supports cooperation but won’t tolerate “attempts to smear China”, according to Chinese state media.
In late May this year, a story broke out on three researchers at the Wuhan lab falling ill in early November 2019. The credibility of the source has not been verified but state-run media Global Times dismissed the story adding that “all staff members tested negative for novel coronavirus antibodies”.
In its version of the WHO report, China also refuted the deaths of the miners in 2012 due to a strain related to the novel coronavirus and called it a fungus-related infection.
China’s repeated attempts to refute the lab leak theory by calling it “unscientific”, “conspiracy” and “anti-China” get overshadowed by its lack of transparency and denial of access to coronavirus-related genomic data, samples of lab staff, and details of earliest cases documented in November 2019.
Despite the WHO report dismissing the likelihood of the virus originating in a lab, suspicions seem to grow rather than die down.
As pointed out in Wade’s article, Dr.Peter Daszak, the President of EcoHealth Alliance was one of the members of the WHO-led team of investigators that was authorized to study the origins of the virus in Wuhan.
The report has since been criticized by scientists and experts around the world, who accuse China of withholding relevant data needed to conduct a fair and transparent investigation.
The accusations received support from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the chief of the World Health Organization, who accepted the need for a “continued examination of the theory that the virus had escaped from a Wuhan institute of virology laboratory”.