JOHN DWYER. Political ambition demands we play the COVID ‘Blame Game’ while Rome still burns

President Donald J Trump claims that carelessness in the Wuhan Institute for Virology saw the COVID-19 virus, which, he insists, was being grown in the Institute, escape, resulting in a disastrous pandemic.

China is to blame and the President assures us that he has “seen very strong evidence” that this is so. His National Security experts and Virologists world wide say this scenario is highly unlikely. The President’s political imperative however requires urgent distraction from his disastrous handling of the epidemic in the US, the most deadly in the world.

The last thing the world needs at the moment is poisonous political upheaval that threatens world trade arrangements, the crucial functions of the WHO, recovery in a post-COVID world and much else. No-one could argue that establishing the genesis of the current epidemic is not an urgent matter for the world’s best scientists to unravel but the politicisation of the imperative is making the task so much more difficult. The apolitical downright ugliness of Trump’s attack ensured that China would become defensive.

It was unfortunate that the timing of Australia’s reasonable insistence on the need for independent analysis of the cause of the epidemic was seen by China as support for Trump’s rhetoric. How different would have been the outcome if the United Nations had resolved to have the international community work with China to answer crucial questions as had happened in previous epidemics.

Since 2002 we have had three epidemics of potentially deadly infections with mutated coronaviruses. The SARS epidemic started in southern China and an international effort, coordinated with China, established that the virus originated in horseshoe bats in tropical China and infected a non-human host (probably civet cats) before human to human transition occurred. China was not ‘blamed’ for that epidemic. Then in 2012 an epidemic emerged in Saudi Arabia as a result of another set of mutations in the coronavirus population producing MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). This character, which swept through more than 20 countries was resident in dromedary camels, close association with which could result in human infection. Human to human transmission followed. Nothing to do with carelessness or ‘wet markets’ or biological warfare.

As we try to determine if an accident in the Wuhan Virology Institute unleashed COVID-19 on the world it is surely important to look at the quality of the work done there and the accomplishments of the Institute’s scientists. As is hardly surprising given China’s emergence as a leader in the world of technology, much of the biological science China’s scientists are pursuing is of the highest standard. What do the scientists at the Wuhan facility say about the COVID-19 controversy?

The leader of the corona laboratory in Wuhan is Professor Shi Zhengli, a 51 year old scientist of international renown. After extensive studies in China she spent some years in Montpellier in France. Her many publications have been published in major journals throughout the world and she has many collaborative arrangements with scientists in many countries. She has been awarded a number of honours by the international scientific community. Much to Donald’s displeasure she has received substantial funding from the National Institutes for Health in the US.

After the recognition that the SARS virus was a coronavirus and knowing that bats were hosts to many coronaviruses, Zhengli became quite famous in China and beyond for the remarkable effort she and her team made to extract samples of biological fluids from horseshoe bats in their caves in Yunnan Province, a thousand kilometres from her base in Wuhan. The team would spend long nights attempting to access almost impenetrable caves. With precious samples of bat blood, saliva, urine and even faeces, the team returned to Wuhan and set up tissue cultures of the corona viruses these samples contained. Zhengli became know as “Batlady” in China.

By 2015 Zhengli in China and scientists in the US and Switzerland could demonstrate that some of the coronaviruses collected from bats could infect tissue cultures of human lung cells. To do so they had adapted to use a normal biological structure, the so called ACE2 receptor, found on the surface of human lung, throat, nose and other respiratory tract cells. (See P & I Dwyer March 11,2020 for details). Some scientists voiced their concerns that such viruses were held in laboratories, wondering if they escaped could they not start an epidemic? By 2015 the Wuhan laboratory had become the first laboratory to reach the highest level of bio-research safety (BSL-4) meaning that laboratory could study the worlds most dangerous viruses.

Continuing studies on the SARS virus and others collected from the Yunnan bat caves that had the ability to bind to human cells saw Zhengli’s unit warn of the need to continue to study such viruses as the potential for further corona virus epidemics was high. They proposed that

The monitoring of SARS-Cov evolution at this and other sites should continue as well as the an examination of human behavioural risk for infection and serological (antibody) surveys of people to determine if spillover is already occurring and to design interventional strategies to avoid future disease emergence.

In 2018 diplomats from the US Embassy in Beijing visited the Wuhan Institute and were concerned by what they thought was insufficient attention to safety in the laboratories and in cables back to Washington expressed fears that, “This could risk causing a a new SARS-like pandemic”.

On the night of 30 December 2019, Zhengli was in Shanghai at a meeting. She received a call from a senior government official who told her of the outbreak of a SARS like illness in Wuhan and ordered her back to Wuhan to investigate the outbreak. Although confident that the illnesses were not related to her laboratory she and her team rapidly examined the genetic blueprint for the responsible virus ( to be known as COVID-19) and compared it to the genetic profile of all the corona viruses in her laboratory. She also looked for any possible mishandling of viral material used in many experiments at the Institute. She did not find any match between the viruses her team was working with from bat caves and those found in infected patients.. She told a reporter for Scientific America that, “This really took a load of my mind, I had not slept a wink for days”.

I am inclined to believe her and, more importantly, so are many eminent virologists who know her. Two other important propositions have been ‘ruled out’ by scientists namely the possibility that COVID-19 was ‘man-made’ in the Wuhan laboratory or had evolved in the Wuhan laboratory from specimens collected from bat caves. Coronaviruses evolve (learn new tricks for their survival) when challenged by an immune system, i.e. in animals.

I detail this information here to dispute the raucous and repetitive claims from the Trump administration that the Wuhan Institute was responsible for the creation and/or dissemination of COVID-19. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claim to have seen “significant evidence” (which they are not able to reveal ), that the virus came from the Wuhan laboratory. Investigative journalists suspect that this ‘evidence’ comes from a ‘private party’ investigation of mobile phone calls made from the laboratory during December 2019. The claim is that phone traffic was much reduced for two weeks suggesting there must have been a “serious” incident in the Institute.

The Chinese government’s handling of the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak was disgraceful, with denial for a week or so of evidence for human to human transmission, its slowness in informing WHO of the problem and its persecution of the doctor who sounded the alarm. However the ‘blame game’, in which Australia is now so involved, is adding to the world’s woes as it struggles with the corona virus epidemic. The way the ‘game’ has been played has been anything but politically mature and effective. Who would have thought that Australia’s barley farmers would face an 80% ‘retaliatory’ tariff because of our support for America’s bellicose attack on China?

As we face the reality that further problems with new coronavirus variations are likely to cause future potential for pandemics, the essential international collaboration to have our best scientists work with China to better understand how our current epidemic originated, is being stymied by political pettiness. Human behaviour is indeed a virus’s best friend.

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Professor John Dwyer, Immunologist and Emeritus Professor of Medicine at UNSW

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