In March, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called into question the organization's report on the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The stage-managed investigation didn't take place until a year after the pandemic started, and reckoned that it's most likely that the virus jumped to humans from animal species, deeming the lab leak hypothesis extremely unlikely. Tedros observed, "Although the team 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."
"I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions," he added, noting that "all hypotheses remain on the table." For his troubles, Chinese officials are suggesting that Tedros' comments are being used by "some forces with ulterior motives [that] are challenging the authority of and science behind the joint report." But if the Chinese government has nothing to hide, why has it stymied investigations into the origin of the virus from the very beginning of the pandemic?
In an extensive analysis at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published last week, science journalist Nicholas Wade evaluates the likelihood that the virus has a natural origin versus the possibility that it escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Noting that ultimately "neither the natural emergence nor the lab escape hypothesis can yet be ruled out," Wade nevertheless concludes that the "proponents of lab escape can explain all the available facts about SARS2 [COVID-19 virus] considerably more easily than can those who favor natural emergence."
As evidence, Wade notes that while researchers have identified a very similar RaTG13 virus in horseshoe bats, they have not so far found a likely progenitor of the COVID-19 coronavirus in any wild or domesticated species. Initially, it was suggested that a local Wuhan wet market where wild animals were sold for food may have been the source of the initial outbreak. That was later discounted when further testing found that many of the first cases had no link to that market.
Wade argues that circumstantial evidence strongly supports the idea that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. First, the lab has been collecting and doing research on bat coronaviruses for years and, perhaps not so coincidentally, the outbreak begin in Wuhan and nowhere else. Second, he claims that the initial uniformity of the strain of virus at the outset of the pandemic suggests that it was a gain-of-function variant experimentally adapted to be especially good at infecting human cells. Gain-of-function research seeks to improve the ability of a pathogen to cause disease. Wade also puts great evidentiary weight on the fact that the virus supposedly has an unusual furin cleavage site (a specific protein that the virus uses to enter human cells). Wade believes that its presence in the COVID-19 virus suggests lab manipulation.
Wade is particularly suspicious of EcoHealth Alliance researcher Peter Daszak who oversaw a National Institutes of Health grant used to fund research on coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. He notes that Daszak was involved in organizing an open letter published in The Lancet in March 2020 that decried "rumours and misinformation" suggesting that the COVID-19 virus did not have a natural origin. The letter did reference nine different early studies that concluded that the virus most likely had a natural origin. It is, however, notable that Daszak was a member of the WHO investigatory team that went to China in January. Daszak's longtime association with the Wuhan Institute of Virology certainly does have a conflict of interest whiff about it.
Wade asserts that the NIH grant was used to fund gain-of-function research on coronaviruses. Reading the abstract suggests that the funded research was actually focused on collecting viruses from the wild and developing predictive models to assess the risks of spillover into humans. On the other hand, in a video interview just days before the outbreak was identified, Daszak could be alluding to some gain-of-function research in Wuhan. In any case, even if Daszak is honest in his denials that doesn't mean that NIH funding might not have been diverted to gain-of-function research by lab leaders in Wuhan. Yesterday at a Senate hearing, Anthony Fauci, member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, strongly denied that the NIH had ever funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan laboratory.
Wade claims that "no known SARS-related beta-coronavirus, the class to which SARS2 belongs, possesses a furin cleavage site." Therefore it seems most likely to him that the furin cleavage site was added through gain-of-function experimentation in Wuhan. Certainly some research supports this contention, whereas other researchers report, "Furin cleavage sites in spike proteins naturally occurred independently for multiple times in coronaviruses. Such feature of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein is not necessarily a product of manual intervention, though our observation does not rule out the lab-engineered scenario." More research and analysis will be required to sort these claims out.*
Wade also asserts that if the virus "jumped from bats to people in a single leap and hasn't changed much since, it should still be good at infecting bats. And it seems it isn't." Actually, according to some non-peer-reviewed research, some bat species are susceptible to COVID-19 infections. Among these are the common bent-wing bats (Miniopterus schreibersii) that are also found in the Yunnan caves from which the Wuhan virus researchers collected coronavirus samples. But have Chinese researchers sought to (re)test for the presence of a virus similar to the COVID-19 virus among that species of bat in Yunnan? The Chinese government still has plenty for which they ought to answer.
However, Wade is correct when he observes, "The records of the Wuhan Institute of Virology certainly hold much relevant information. But Chinese authorities seem unlikely to release them given the substantial chance that they incriminate the regime in the creation of the pandemic."
It is notable that on September 12, 2019, the main database of samples and viral sequences of the Wuhan Institute of Virology was taken offline. Institute researchers claim that that was done to prevent hacking. There is, however, no reason WHO or other investigators cannot now be given access to it.
"Absent the efforts of some courageous Chinese whistle-blower, we may already have at hand just about all of the relevant information we are likely to get for a while," Wade concludes.
The WHO investigation was pitifully inadequate. On March 4, a group of skeptical researchers issued an open letter questioning the WHO report and calling for an independent "forensic investigation" into the origins of COVID-19. If the Chinese government has nothing to hide concerning the origins of the COVID-19 virus, then it should welcome such an inquiry. If not, then Chinese researchers and officials should expect continued—and increased—skepticism about their assertions that the COVID-19 virus was not introduced to the world via a lab leak.
*Update: On the question of whether the furin cleavage site indicates lab manipulation see: "Is This a COVID-19 'Smoking Gun,' or Is it a Damp Squib?"