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A year into the Pandemic, scientists still don’t know COVID-19’s true origin

Andrew Trunsky, DCNF

  • Over a year after the first coronavirus cases were detected, experts are still unsure as to whether the virus occurred in nature or was developed or modified in a lab before jumping to humans.
  • Many have disregarded the lab-leak theory, including the World Health Organization, which said that the likelihood that the virus originated in a lab was “extremely unlikely” following the conclusion of its six-week investigation into the matter. But some, including WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom, have pushed back, saying that there is not enough evidence to conclude exactly how the virus appeared.
  • “Some questions have been raised as to whether some hypotheses have been discarded,” Tedros said on Feb. 11. “I want to clarify that all hypotheses remain open and require further study.”
  • “At this point in time, all scientific data related to the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and the epidemiology of COVID-19 are equally consistent with a natural-accident origin or a laboratory-accident origin,” said Dr. Richard Ebright, the Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University.

Over a year after the first coronavirus cases were detected, experts are still unsure as to whether the virus occurred in nature or was developed or modified in a lab before jumping to humans.

Many have disregarded the lab-leak theory, including the World Health Organization, which said that the likelihood that the virus originated in a lab was “extremely unlikely” following the conclusion of its six-week investigation into the matter. But some, including WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom, have pushed back, saying that there is not enough evidence to conclude exactly how the virus appeared.

“Some questions have been raised as to whether some hypotheses have been discarded,” Tedros said on Feb. 11. “I want to clarify that all hypotheses remain open and require further study.”

Dr. Richard Ebright, the Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University and Laboratory Director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, told the Daily Caller News Foundation that there was “no secure basis” to determine whether the virus first infected humans due to a natural accident or lab exposure.

“At this point in time, all scientific data related to the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and the epidemiology of COVID-19 are equally consistent with a natural-accident origin or a laboratory-accident origin,” he said.

“The first human infection could have occurred as a natural accident, with a virus passing from bat to human, possibly through another animal,” Ebright said, noting that that 2002 SARS virus jumped to humans in a similar manner.

But Ebright also added that coronaviruses are constantly studied in laboratories throughout China, including at the Wuhan Municipal CDC and Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“Therefore, the first human infection could have occurred as a laboratory accident, with the virus accidentally infecting a field collection, field survey or laboratory staffer, followed by transmission … to the general public,” Ebright said, noting that SARS outbreaks in 2003 and 2004 initially occurred this way as well.

Ebright also outlined circumstantial evidence regarding the time and location of the outbreak, underscoring why, in his opinion, it was unwise to rule out the possibility of a lab-leak.

First, he said, Wuhan is located tens of kilometers away from known horseshoe bat colonies (the type of bat considered to be the coronavirus’s progenitor), and first appeared when the bats typically hibernate. Second, the major labs in the central Chinese city also conduct extensive studies on the species, Ebright said, oftentimes coming into contact with the bats and bringing the viruses that they carry back to the lab for further study.

Ebright also said that it was “eminently plausible” that a the coronavirus could be a “non-natural, laboratory-generated SARS-related” virus. He discussed the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s precarious research involving the alteration of viral genes and enhancing a virus’s ability to infect human cells, though a Nature piece detailing the research explicitly noted that it was “being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus was engineered,” and that “there is no evidence that this is true.”

Dr. Stanley Perlman, the Mark Stinski Chair in Virology at the University of Iowa, pushed back against the notion that the virus did not arise naturally, saying that creating a virus as deadly and as transmissible as the coronavirus is “beyond our skills and knowledge.”

“Even if someone started with a virus that shared 96% sequence with SARS-CoV-2, we would not know how to make it more virulent,” Perlman told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

“I think that it likely occurred in someone with contact with possible hosts, whether bats or otherwise, most likely in the wild,” he said, noting that hypotheses regarding the coronavirus’s origin were still all speculative.

Perlman’s conclusion mirrored those from most independent organizations and researchers, who said that all initial signs pointed to the coronavirus occurring naturally.

A genomic study conducted by the National Institutes of Health when the virus first took hold in the U.S. concluded that the coronavirus’s spike proteins were able to attach to other cells so efficiently due to natural selection, not human engineering, and a University of Minnesota study found “exactly zero” evidence that the virus was created in a lab.

“Shi Zhengli, PhD, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology … extensively published the genetic sequences of isolates from the bat coronaviruses she studies,” the University of Minnesota report said. “None of them match those of COVID-19.” (Shi herself also confirmed that fact in an interview with Scientific American.)

“If she would have published a sequence for the virus and then this pops up, then we would have known it came from the lab,” the Minnesota study said. “There’s no evidence for this, but there is plenty of evidence against it.”

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Daily Caller News Foundation
Daily Caller News Foundation

Founded by Tucker Carlson, a 25-year veteran of print and broadcast media, and Neil Patel, former chief policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, The Daily Caller News Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit providing original investigative reporting from a team of professional reporters that operates for the public benefit.

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