In the United States, they admitted that they funded research at the Institute of Virology in Wuhan. This reignited interest in the hypothesis of a laboratory leak of the infection that caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Some believe that American and Chinese scientists have conducted particularly dangerous experiments with the bat coronavirus. However, there is no direct evidence for this.
Coincidence or consequences: two versions of the origin of the virus
In December 2019, an outbreak of an unusual respiratory infection causing fatal pneumonia broke out in Wuhan. The disease spread rapidly throughout the world. Soon the genome of the pathogen was deciphered. It turned out that this is a beta-coronavirus. It was with this kind of pathogens that they worked at the Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan. Unsurprisingly, a laboratory leak was suspected.
In the spring of 2020, WHO created a commission to investigate the origin of the new infection. Experts from ten countries visited the Institute of Virology in Wuhan, the market associated with the outbreak, took samples, studied documents, but the laboratory did not find traces of the pathogen COVID-19. “There is no indication that anyone has worked with this virus in the past and that there has been a leak,” panelist Dr Peter Ben Embarek said in a WHO podcast.
US President Biden entrusted the intelligence with this case. At the end of August, he was presented with a report. It was announced to the public that both versions – the leak and the natural source of the virus – were plausible, but data were lacking. The only thing the secret services were convinced of was that China did not develop the COVID-19 pathogen as a biological weapon. Biden said he would continue to figure it out.
Bypassing the moratorium
The United States is one of the countries most affected by the pandemic. The disease has already claimed 743 thousand lives and hit the economy hard. Ironically, the coronavirus in Wuhan was dealt with, including with the money of American taxpayers.
In 2012, two groups of scientists from different countries, including the United States, independently genetically modified the H5N1 avian influenza virus. It is dangerous for humans, but it can only be infected from waterfowl – it is not transmitted between people. Trying to understand why this is so and whether the virus is capable of becoming more infectious, scientists inserted a small section in the gene for the surface protein hemagglutinin, with the help of which the infection penetrates into mammalian cells, injected the virus into ferrets, allowed it to evolve and eventually got a variant that is infectious to rodents.
Such experiments in science are called gain-of-function research – the creation of new functions. There are great doubts about their ethics. On the one hand, it helps to develop new antiviral drugs, vaccines, manage dangerous epidemics, on the other hand, there is a certain risk.
In 2014, after a series of incidents in the United States, gain-of-function research with influenza and coronaviruses was banned. At the same time, the National Institutes of Health NIH – the country’s largest organization, effectively the Ministry of Health – issued grants to the EcoHealth Alliance to fund the Institute of Virology in Wuhan.
EcoHealth is a non-governmental non-profit organization, heir to a fund established in the 1970s by British naturalist Gerald Darrell to preserve wildlife. Now among the projects is the search for infections potentially dangerous to humans and the prevention of epidemics. EcoHealth is led by British zoonotic infection expert Peter Dashak. Despite his apparent conflict of interest, he became the only US representative on the aforementioned WHO commission.
EcoHealth has awarded $ 600,000 in grants to a laboratory headed by virologist Shi Zhengli – Batwoman (Batwoman). She is famous for discovering a natural reservoir of SARS-CoV-like virus, the causative agent of SARS, an outbreak of which occurred in the early 2000s in China. These are horseshoe bats that live in caves in Yunnan province.
An improved version of the coronavirus
Bats are sources of such dangerous infections as Ebola, Marburg, Nipah, Hendra, and coronaviruses infecting humans, including SARS, also circulate in their populations.
SARS-like viruses cling to mammalian cells using surface spike proteins, recognize special ACE2 receptors there, trick them and get inside. Most bat viruses cannot do this, so they are not dangerous to humans. The question arises as to how these mutations arose in the spike protein. According to one hypothesis, the virus pre-evolves in intermediate hosts, for example, in pangolins. Le-t’s say the coronavirus that causes sporadic outbreaks of MERS in the Middle East lives in camels. By the way, his ancestor was never found in the wild.
In 2015, Nature published an article by a team of scientists led by Shi Zhengli and American researcher Ralph Barick from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the results of experiments on bat coronaviruses. The surface spike protein of another coronavirus was inserted into SARS-CoV. The chimera infect human cells and humanized mice – specially bred genetically modified animals with the human ACE2 receptor on the cell membranes. Moreover, the rodents infected with the chimeric virus were sick more.
In 2017, Shi Zhengli released a work in collaboration with Dashak. This time, they genetically inserted a spike protein from eight bats coronaviruses into the wild WIV1 coronavirus. The new agents infect monkey and human kidney cell lines HeLa using ACE2 receptors as a gateway.
This publication sparked a heated debate at a hearing in the US Congress in May this year. Senator Rand Paul insisted that there was gain-of-function research, which meant that the US was funding the prohibited research. The country’s chief epidemiologist, Anthony Fauci, denied this.
The situation became cl-ear only the other day, wh-en a letter from the NIH ca-me to the Senate, which w-as widely distributed on the Internet. “Published gen-omic data show that bat co-ronaviruses studied under NIH and EcoHealth grants at the Wuhan Institute of Virology did not and could not become SARS-CoV-2,” it said. It also turned out that EcoHealth did not fully report on grants.
It is worth noting that the European Union also sponsored the Chinese Institute of Virology through the Horizon 2020 program. But there were delays in the report and the EU cut off funding.
Points for and against
Now the working version that scientists prefer is a natural jump of the virus from bats to humans, possibly through an intermediate host. This has happened many times in the past. Suffice it to recall the epidemics of HIV, bird flu, Zika, Ebola, SARS and MERS. Not every time it is possible to find direct ancestors in a natural reservoir, but the closest related viruses among wild types are always present.
The main argument against the leak is that there is too much difference between the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 and those viruses that were experimented with in Wuhan. The only strain that can infect humans, found in bats in the caves of Yunan, is the SARS-like virus RaTG13. Their genomes are 96 percent repeated. Scientists from the French Institut Pasteur recently discovered a 96.8 percent similar coronavirus in northern Laos.
SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV have a 75 percent genome match. There is an important difference in the area where the information about the spike squirrel is encrypted. SARS-CoV-2 has an insert of four nucleotides that allows you to attract an additional enzyme (furin protease) to cleave the spike protein into two parts (S1 and S2) when linked to the ACE2 receptor, so that it can more easily penetrate the cell membrane inside.
The furin insert immediately attracted the attention of scientists. None of the related coronaviruses has this. It is unclear how and where SARS-CoV-2 acquired it. Geneticists are familiar with this sequence, albeit in a slightly different form. This is an additional argument against a mutant who escaped from the laboratory – there are no works where scientists reproduced a furin insert exactly like SARS-CoV-2. Similar experiments were planned at EcoHealth. In 2018, the organization applied for a grant to DARPA – the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense, but without success. The document was leaked to the media thanks to the DRASTIC group of volunteers who are investigating a version of a laboratory leak.
The ideological inspirer of DRASTIC is a Canadian entrepreneur of Russian origin Yuri Deigin. Enthus-iasts are looking for documents about experiments in Shi Zhengli’s laboratory. Last autumn Deigin in collaboration with microbiologists from Austria Rosanna Segreto published in a scientific journal article to support his hypothesis. “The artificial origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is not just a conspiracy theory to be condemned, scientists are obliged to consider all possible causes,” the authors conclude.
Natural jump proponents consider the Wuhan outbreak a tragic coincidence. “If an epidemic happened not in Wuhan, but, say, in Beijing, there would be a suspicious laboratory nearby,” says biologist Alexander Panchin from the Kharkevich Institute for Information Transmission Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences in an article in Novaya Gazeta. The other day, together with a geneticist from Moscow State University and Harvard, Alexander Tyshkovsky, he criticized the version of the leak. It lacks a clear scenario in which this became possible, and arguments that would outweigh the hypothesis of natural evolution, scientists believe.
In the meantime, the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is shrouded in mystery. The search for an ancestor in the wild can take years and end in nothing. For example, the closest brother of SARS-CoV has been searched for 14 years, and the source of the 2014 Ebola outbreak has not yet been identified.
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