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Home >Opinion >Views >Test the hypothesis of Sars-CoV-2’s lab origin

The novel coronavirus that we identify as Sars-Cov-2 has not just roiled the world with covid, the illness it causes, it has also split academia over the mystery of its origin. To fend off future pandemics, we need to know if it really leapt at us from a bat, as scientists largely led us to think, or leaked from a laboratory, a hypothesis that was never rejected and has seen its chances of testing true rise sufficiently to rescue it from dismissal as a ‘conspiracy theory’. The latter got fresh wind from the claim of two researchers, Angus Dalgleish of the UK and Birger Sorensen of Norway. Their work, they reportedly said, had revealed that this virus has no “credible natural ancestor" and is thus a likely lab creation, with a trail of reverse-engineered genetic pointers laid out sneakily as a red herring to mislead sleuths to a cave bat. The lab under suspicion is China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), located in the city where a wildlife and seafood market 12km away saw covid’s first outbreak, the exact pattern of which Beijing withheld. Even without calls by countries like India and the US for an enquiry, British intelligence agencies calling the leak story “feasible" and China’s record of evasion over the question, all clues to its origin would’ve had to be pursued anyway for the sake of knowledge. But if lab-made virulence is indeed a big threat, defences would need to be erected urgently.

The latest allegation of a new viral ‘spike’ having been spliced with a natural virus extract for enhanced contagion, as Dalgleish and Sorensen surmise, comes soon after a report resurfaced of three WIV researchers having fallen sick with covid-like symptoms back in November 2019, a month before China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to a health crisis. Given the original Sars scare, the WIV had various viruses under its lens that were modified to check potential pathways of infectivity in ‘gain of function’ studies. In 2012, it transpires, samples were taken from bats in a copper mine after six workers were sickened by a disease traced to new pathogens. This was work as usual, but shrouded in secrecy. Could one such project have gone wrong? That China has tried to stonewall every external probe, including one by the WHO, has stoked suspicions. Its viral database was concealed from public view some years ago, its regime had sought to gag the Wuhan doctor who first raised an alarm over this new killer, and its tracing of covid originators was suspiciously tardy. Last February, Beijing issued an order to upgrade biosecurity at all Chinese labs, two years after gaps in WIV’s were flagged by US diplomats. As science writer Nicholas Wade recently noted, it is also odd that this virus came fully evolved to target humans with such efficiency, unlike other bugs of its kind.

While much of the above points to a Chinese cover-up of an accidental leak, or worse, an effort to develop bio-weapons, the evidence so far is only circumstantial. Even genomic clues can be unreliable. Some experts have drawn a parallel with early scepticism of Darwin’s big theory to remind us that nature is given to what we see as freak mutations. Evolution, they say, can take such weird twists that genomic data often acts as just another inkblot test: the belief in a designer could predispose an observer to spot telltale signs of one. All said, as of now, the balance of odds still favours a zoonotic jump over a laboratory leak. But, still, the world must investigate the charge. And stay on high alert.

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