Because Donald Trump repeatedly used China to deflect criticisms of his own pandemic errors, conspiracy theorists abound. To them, a biosecurity-level 4 facility in Wuhan, where COVID first emerged, is too coincidental, even though the mission of the laboratory is to prevent zoonotic transmissions of potentially deadly diseases from other animals to us. As a bsl-4 lab, Wuhan’s Institute of Virology has high security clearance to genetically map and identify airborne pathogens for which vaccines have yet to be developed. If only to exorcize political demons here and abroad, Wuhan and the WIV should be epicenters of investigations into the evolution, emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-2. That enquiry should include probing WIV records for possible breaches of safety protocols and examining medical files of personnel, who routinely work with bats and other known vectors of coronaviruses.
In February 2020, Shi Zhengli, the “bat woman” and lead scientist at WIV, after years of researching and warning about zoonotic bat-borne diseases, published discovery of a new virus, RaTG13. RaTG13 is 96.2 percent genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2. Shi’s discovery suggests COVID-19 is yet another disease transmissible to humans originating from viral infections in bats, perhaps evolving in Yunnan Province’s zoologically diverse caves. That’s where several miners died of respiratory infections similar to COVID-19 in 2013. In Shitou Cave, Shi, working with bat feces in 2011, isolated a novel virus similar to SARS, which had caused a pandemic 10 years earlier. Clearly, the WIV has a distinguished, well-published history of conducting “gain of function” research to map and engineer against genomes of pathogenic viruses. To date, neither the WHO nor Five Eyes intelligence network, comprising the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, has found evidence linking COVID-19 to Shi’s lab.
Even with today’s computers and advanced tracing, given COVID’s long asymptomatic latency, identifying “patient zero” for SARS-CoV-2 is as improbable as backtracking “index cases” for communicable diseases of the past, such as smallpox and the 1918 flu. Accidental infections in research labs, while rare, do occur. Take, for example, the U.S. lab tech exposed to Ebola in 2014. But human destruction of habitat and encroachment on wildlife across the globe provided innumerable chances outside the WIV for transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from nonhuman animals to people. Bats, hunted by farmers during famines, had been a staple of Wuhan’s “wet market.” Because they congregate in high-density maternal colonies in which females give birth, nurse and wean their young, communally roosting bats present ideal conditions for viruses to replicate, mutate and spread. Parsimony and common sense matter. In vivo exposures to bats, not biological warfare gone awry, were the likely source and reservoir for SARS-CoV-2. Once transmitted to humans in China, asymptomatic carriers were on planes doing business around the world, days perhaps weeks before the first COVID patient was hospitalized in Wuhan.
One silver-lining: On February 24, 2020, President Xi announced a permanent ban on wildlife consumption and trade, erasing a $76 billion industry which employing 14 million people. Among chief beneficiaries of the ban are pangolins, a docile, endangered, insectivorous mammal, more closely related to cats, dogs and bears than armadillos and anteaters it resembles. Pangolins, like armadillos, benignly roll themselves into armored balls to escape predators, a shyness which makes them easy victims of illegal wildlife trade. The only mammal with scales, a single pangolin can scarf down 70 million insects in a year. Pangolin scales, however, while composed of keratin, the same material as hair, horn and fingernails, are foolishly used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat anything from poor lactation to lumbago, erectile dysfunction and arthritis. Like rhino horns from which profits are made through rhinoceros slaughter, pangolin scales have no more medicinal value than chewed manicures. Both animals nonetheless are being hunted to extinction. In recent years, some 2.7 million pangolins were poached from Asian and African grasslands and rainforests to be killed in Wuhan’s and other Chinese wet markets. Debate ensues, but SARS-CoV-2 may have originated in bats, jumping to humans via pangolin intermediaries. New viruses discovered in Malaysian pangolins have exactly the same receptor sites and binders as SARS-CoV-2’s proteins.
Learning how SARS-CoV-2 entered and wreaked havoc in the human population has scientific gravity, a key to containing future epidemics. Let’s not forget, however, that the polio epidemic started in 1916 and following two unsuccessful vaccine field trials in 1935 wasn’t controlled until Jonas Salk’s serum in 1955. It took 4 years to identify HIV in the 1980s. Thanks to the WIV, China was able to ID and map the SARS-CoV-2 genome within days. Sharing those data internationally enabled computer-generated vaccines for field trials in less than a month. Sure, ask pertinent questions of the WIV. But also ask why the U.S., a country of 330 million, sits on contracts for over 1.2 billion doses of coronavirus serum, sharing with Mexico and Canada, but not the needy and suffering developing world.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.