The answer is best left to scientists, and the healthcare fraternity!!!
Theories about the roots of the COVID-19 fury have been spreading as fast as the virus itself. Several have focused on the presence of one of China’s most high-level virus analysis laboratories, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), to propose SARS-CoV-2 may have originated in a lab.
What does the evidence tell us?
The first approved lab theory put forward in a January 26 article in the Washington Times, proposed COVID-19 was the event of biological warfare gone reverse. The article, which possibly spawned a million WhatsApp forwards, quoted a retired Israeli military officer as saying the virus “may have originated in a laboratory in the city of Wuhan linked to China’s covert biological weapons program.”
A March 17 study by numerous virologists, including Kristian Andersen of The Scripps Research Institute and Ian Lipkin at Columbia University, concluded the evidence suggests SARS-CoV-2 was not engineered. The study, the proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2, concluded based on available genome sequence data that has now been drafted in several countries that “it is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory guidance of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus”. The virus sequence was 96% identical at the whole-genome level to a bat coronavirus. It suggested two likely origins: “natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic transfer” and “natural selection in humans following a zoonotic transfer.”
If we can now consider the origins were natural, the source remains a riddle. Whether the origin, presumably a bat, was being examined at a lab (we know the WIV did indeed research bat coronaviruses), sold at a market, or infected another animal that was sold at a market remains a matter of pure conjecture.
Could the virus have leaked from the lab in an accident?
Some lab leak advocates have denoted to 2018 U.S. State Department cables expressing serious concerns over safety practices at the WIV. Others cite a February 6 study by Xiao Botao of the South China University of Technology, which has since been deleted. Though widely cited the paper has not been peer-reviewed, is just one page long, and only cites circumstantial evidence, pointing to the WIV and Wuhan Center for Disease Control is 12 km and 280 meters from the first infection cluster at a seafood market.
The possibility of lab origins hinges on whether SARS-CoV-2 was one of the viruses being analyzed at the laboratory. Scientists at the WIV have denied this was the case. Opening up the lab to foreign researchers might shed some light, but even that may not quell doubts given the secrecy with which such labs operate, more so those located in China. The Chinese government putting in place new rules that require research on the origins to be vetted has only raised more doubts.
What may disprove a laboratory origin hypothesis is if an intermediate host is recognized, suggesting a natural spillover, but that could take years. In a strange contradiction, specialists at the WIV, including top specialist ‘Shi Zhengli’, published an article in Nature in December 2018 on the Origin and Evolution of Pathogenic Coronaviruses signaling of the developing dangers of spillovers of bat coronaviruses, because of human activities drawing them close to bats. Their prior research helped map the SARS-CoV-2 genome in record time. Now that their warnings have come true, they find themselves being blamed for the new virus.
There is no evidence to prove or disprove a laboratory leak. In the scientific community, new theories are usually regarded as credible based on the evidence with which they are offered; they aren’t believed to be true until evidence disproves them. That isn’t, however, how the rest of the world operates. This may explain why the lab leak theory appears to be less common with scientists than it is with bureaucrats, foreign policy experts & journalists. Which side of the debate you stand on may have less to do with a mystery of science than your political beliefs, even if this still unanswered question is one perhaps best left to the scientists!
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