“It is possible”: a research laboratory on Wuhan disease is at the center of theories of suspicion and conspiracy on the origins of COVID-19

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The basic facts are certainly ripe for conspiracy theory: China’s only high-security laboratory for infectious diseases is located in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus behind the COVID-19 pandemic first appeared. And the laboratory is famous for its sometimes controversial research on such pathogens.

Most online speculation, evoking scary scenarios of biological weapons and the like, lacks credible evidence. Some have been directly refuted by science.

But a new report suggesting that U.S. diplomats expressed serious concerns about laboratory safety in 2018 added circumstantial support to a plausible, but unproven theory – that the virus had natural origins but accidentally leaked from the laboratory from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

It is even more likely that the germ emerged naturally from the environment, said Dr. David Kelvin, a virologist at Dalhousie University who works with researchers elsewhere in China.

But “it is possible that it could happen,” he said of a laboratory leak.

There is a precedent for such “escapes”, usually via inadvertently infected laboratory workers, in China and elsewhere.

They include a 1977 influenza pandemic linked to a laboratory accident in China or Russia, three or four accidental releases of SARS virus from a Beijing laboratory in 2004, and the repeated and involuntary leakage of smallpox from an establishment British in the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, a number of US virus detection laboratories were closed due to dangerously sloppy procedures.

All this has led some experts to demand that the security of disease control laboratories around the world be made much stricter.

“The question is not if such escapes will lead to a major civil epidemic, but rather what the pathogen will be and how such an escape can be contained, “wrote pathologist and medical historian Dr. Martin Furmanski in a 2014 article.” If indeed it can be contained at all. “

Very early on, the Chinese authorities in Wuhan identified a food market in their city as the center of the new coronavirus epidemic.


Nicolas Asfouri / AFP via Getty Images

The scientific consensus is that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, originated in bats and jumped to humans, possibly through an intermediate animal host. Many of the first human cases in Wuhan were people who visited a live animal market, similar to the scenario that led to the SARS-1 epidemic in 2003 and other epidemics in China.

But the coincidence that the only Chinese level 4 biosafety laboratory – the world’s highest infectious disease treatment facility – is located in Wuhan itself has been the windfall of conspirators on the Internet. Perhaps, they claim, a bio-designed virus or even a bio-weapon has been released into the general population, deliberately or not.

There has never been any real evidence of this, and a study last month seemed to end the guesswork, concluding that the virus was the result of natural evolution, not human manipulation.

But the idea that a natural coronavirus studied in the laboratory – or in another lower-level research center in Wuhan – had escaped earned him at least some credibility. Washington Post report.

In January, a research document concluded that the first known COVID-19 patient had no connection to the live animal market

He cited a cable sent by U.S. diplomats to the State Department in 2018 after visits to the BSL-4 facility which raised concerns that substandard security could lead to a pandemic.

“The new laboratory has a severe shortage of technicians and properly trained investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” Publish cited cable as saying.

The diplomats also discussed the public health importance of the SARS-type coronavirus research the laboratory was conducting, and urged the United States government to provide more assistance to the WIV facility.

None were planned, according to Washington Post.

Other facts have fueled suspicion regarding the BSL-4 facility and the lower-level laboratory at Wuhan Center for Disease Control.

The first is the conclusion in a January research paper that the first known COVID-19 patient had no connection to this live animal market.

Another is the nature of research in Wuhan laboratories. He was praised for finding clear evidence that 2003 SARS was from bats found in the Chinese province of Yunnan.

But there was a debate on a 2014 experiment, co-written by American and Australian researchers, which involved manipulating a SARS-type coronavirus from bats so that it could infect and infect mice. Such “gain of function” projects are designed to anticipate possible epidemic viruses, and potentially help develop vaccines for them in advance, and are championed by many scientists.

But others wonder if the risk is justified. “If the virus were to escape, no one would be able to predict the trajectory,” a virologist told the newspaper. Nature about the Wuhan-U.S. joint. experience.

However, it appears that the COVID-19 virus is not of human origin. So what are the chances of an accident involving a wild germ that was being investigated in Wuhan?

The Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas, a leading BSL-4 laboratory itself, has been working with Chinese facilities for nearly a decade, said James W. Le Duc, its director, in an email to National Post.

“We welcomed their building engineers to work with ours to transmit best practices for the safe operation of their installation, and we asked post-doctoral scientists to follow our rigorous biosafety training program” said Le Duc.

If the virus were to escape, no one could predict the trajectory

It is “plausible” but “highly unlikely” that the virus was released from the laboratory, said Darryl Falzarano, a microbiologist at the University of Saskatchewan who is working on a vaccine for the new pathogen.

“It is difficult to prove or disprove,” he said by email. “Even more if you consider the most likely scenario, which is not harmful but … accidental laboratory exposure where this person may have been asymptomatic or have a mild illness, so no one would have even known. “

Kelvin wonders if there was a political motive in the original cable cited by the Washington Post and his escape to a reporter now, as the Trump administration strives to blame China and the World Health Organization for failing to stop the pandemic.

Furmanski said in an interview that he had no direct knowledge of Wuhan laboratories and doubts that China, with its strict censorship of COVID-19 information, will ever allow an investigation into its possible role.

But he said history has shown that laboratory leaks are a real possibility, albeit infrequent.

An influenza pandemic in 1977 was allegedly triggered by a laboratory leak – involving a previously frozen virus from the 1950s – in China or the former Soviet Union.

“Virology laboratories, like any type of laboratory, can have breaches that can be catastrophic.”


Mohammed Huwais / AFP via Getty Images

Then there was a series of SARS leaks in 2004 by infected laboratory workers in Singapore, Taiwan and a Beijing facility, the latter of which was involved in four separate incidents.

BSL-4 labs are today designed to be highly secure, but failures occur when those inside are lowered, Furmanski said.

One of the many problems cited by the United States Centers for Disease Control during the closure of an army-run laboratory at Fort Detrik, Maryland, last year was a person who entered several times in a room “without the respiratory protection required”, exposing himself to a dangerous bug, according to CDC documents obtained by ABC News.

“The reality, even if they don’t like to talk about it, is that virology labs, like any kind of lab, can have breaches that can be catastrophic,” said Furmanski. “Because they are so infrequent, there is a natural tendency for people – if they have never experienced it, if it is very rare – they think that the things that prevent it can be shortened, because they are a pain in the neck. “

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