Efforts to pinpoint the pandemic’s cause might have been stymied by the Chinese Communist Party.
Let’s start first with the end of the letter that experts published in the journal Science last Thursday that’s caused quite a stir in the international medical and scientific communities. The 18 signatories end it by saying: “Finally, in this time of unfortunate anti-Asian sentiment in some countries, we note that at the beginning of the pandemic, it was Chinese doctors, scientists, journalists, and citizens who shared with the world crucial information about the spread of the virus—often at great personal cost. We should show the same determination in promoting a dispassionate science-based discourse on this difficult but important issue.”
In ending that way, the scientists hope to head off criticism that their argument that a lab leak in Wuhan, China, might have caused the COVID-19 pandemic buys into the anti-Asian sentiment that they decry. It also alludes to the possibility that the heroic efforts by Chinese doctors and others to pinpoint the pandemic’s cause might have been stymied by the Chinese Communist Party, which rules China. In fact, the Chinese government threw up roadblocks for a team of investigators from the World Health Organization (WHO) that tried to find the cause of the pandemic earlier this year, as reported recently by the New York Times.
Kevin Kavanagh, MD, a member of Infection Control Today®’s Editorial Advisory Board, says that “the assertion that the virus was purposefully released is probably not valid since the epicenter of the epidemic was in a highly populated portion of China and the country did not have a workable vaccine.”
After a lot of haggling, the Chinese government agreed to allow the WHO investigators to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of three laboratories in that city that study coronaviruses. Though the WHO investigators could visit the site, they were not allowed to conduct an investigation.
“Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable,” the Science letter states. “Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.”
The letter writers note that this dovetails with what Tedros Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, said about the WHO report that the organization’s investigators released. That report calls the possibility that the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host as likely to very likely. A lab leak? The report called that “very unlikely.”
Ghebreyesus’s ambivalence about this conclusion seemed evident.
“Although the team [of WHO investigators] has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy,” Ghebreyesus said in a statement on March 30.
“There appears to be little doubt that, like the rest of the world, the Wuhan lab was experimenting on coronaviruses,” says Kavanagh. “On May 11 of this year Senator Rand Paul questioned the White House regarding 'gain of function' research, research which would be expected to make the viruses more dangerous and more transmissible. This research was also mentioned in a presidential Fact Sheet: Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology from the Trump administration which apparently has not yet been refuted by the Biden administration.”
When the WHO report came out, Saskia v. Popescu, PHD, MPH, MA, CIC, another ICT® EAB member, agreed that more study needs to be done on the origin of COVID-19. She added, however, that “the truth is that the source of the pandemic does not change the poor response from so many countries, including the United States.”
The Science letter goes into a bit more detail as to why further research on the lab leak possibility needs to be examined. The letter notes that the two theories—lab leak and zoonotic spillover—“were not given balanced consideration. Only 4 of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident.”
They continue: “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest. Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts.”
Spearheading the writing of the letter were Jesse Bloom, who studies the evolution of viruses at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University.
They told the New York Times that the message can be boiled down to this: wait and see. “Most of the discussion you hear about SARS-CoV-2 origins at this point is coming from, I think, the relatively small number of people who feel very certain about their views,” Bloom told the newspaper. He added that anybody who’s making statements with a “high level of certainty is just outstripping what’s possible to do with the available evidence.”
Kavanagh says that “this subject of research in the Wuhan Lab has been almost taboo in the mainstream media. However, the construction of man-made (pseudo) virus is presently an exact science, with single amino acid substitutions possible. Similar to vaccine production, you just need to be able to input the genetic code you desire and a vaccine or pseudo-virus can be made.”
Kavanagh refers to what he describes as a “chilling article” by authors affiliated with China's National Institutes for Food and Drug Control (NIFDC) and WHO Collaborating Center for Standardization and Evaluation of Biologicals.
“This article describes a plethora of single amino acid substitutions in the spike protein from 106 pseudo-virus which resulted in ‘ten mutations such as N234Q, L452R, A475V, and V483A was markedly resistant to some mAbs’ and that ‘the dominant D614G itself and combined with other mutations are more infectious.’”
The D614G variant was the dominant variant in the United States in 2020.