Politics, not science, fuelling debate about the origin of COVID-19Mar 7, 2023
Last week 4.8 million people contracted Covid-19 and 39,000 died as a result. The pandemic rages on around the world with, globally, cumulative cases of 675,565,574 and 6,873,798 deaths documented.
In the USA right wing politicians desperately want wicked China to have created the virus and/or deliberately or carelessly let it loose from a laboratory in Wuhan. Partially responsible they claim, was the esteemed National Institutes of health (NIH) led by Dr Anthony Fauci who funded the laboratory and lied about it to Americans for three years.
Two of the eight major US government departments who have investigated these claims have declared their support for the “Lab Leak” theory albeit with “low confidence” in one case and “moderate confidence” in the other. Conservative outlets like Fox News reported this stridently, with no mention of confidence levels particularly the “High Confidence” other agencies have expressed in this pandemic resulting from infected animals infecting humans.
Such an occurrence definitely caused the corona virus outbreaks that we saw in 2003 (Bat to civet to humans) and 2011 (Camels to humans) and it has been demonstrated that some of the animals sold in the Wuhan markets could be infected with the Covid-19 virus and subsequently infect humans.
Not emphasised enough is the fact that the Wuhan Virology Laboratories are inhabited by many internationally esteemed virologists many of whom have worked extensively in the West and have collaborative programs with top class international laboratories. The lead scientist on the coronavirus research project spent 11 years in Montpellier in France.
The world’s leading virologists dismiss ‘out of hand’, any suggestion that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was a laboratory creation but two very important questions have yet to be satisfactorily answered. (1) Was the Wuhan laboratory engaged in “gain-in-function” research with the SARS virus that actually produced the monster that has killed nearly 7 million of us to date? and (2) was there a leak of the virus from the laboratory.
A Biomedical hot topic for some years now has centred on the ethical acceptability of scientists altering existing microorganisms to see if they can make them more dangerous to humans and other animals; this approach is called ‘gain-in-function’ research. The rationale is to look at mutations that could possibly occur naturally and prepare for that possible outcome by producing vaccines or drugs that could handle such mutations. It’s dangerous no doubt but the risk/benefit ratio favours benefit in the minds of many scientists and the ethics committees that must approve their work.
We have not been provided with any new evidence that might have resulted in the recent opinions re a laboratory leak of virus coming from the FBI and the Department of Energy but it may have been related to new evidence re the funding of the Wuhan Lab by the US. Here’s the story.
In 2019 the NIH approved funds to a not-for-profit organisation, the EcoHealth Alliance, to assist its mission to fund research into viral diseases. The group had expressed enthusiasm for ‘gain-in-function’ research though not with Coronaviruses. The organisation provided $US600,000 to the Wuhan Lab for its work with bat derived coronaviruses. Dr Fauci insists that ‘gain-in-function’ research was not authorised.
While I know it sounds improbable, Vanity Fair magazine in the US noted last week in a discussion on the leak theory that, “Over the last two years, however, a more complex picture has emerged, bit by bit, due to the work of Freedom of Information research groups, a small number of scientists and journalists, and a group of online sleuths calling themselves DRASTIC”
It has been suggested that the scientists in Wuhan wanted to know, as part of their research program, if the SARS-CoV-2 virus could bind the what are called ACE2 receptors that are present in abundance in human (and a number of other species) respiratory tissues (mouth, throat, airways etc.) The answer was “Yes”. Some are labelling this as gain-in-function research but really, if true, it was just the discovery of an existing property the virus already possessed. In any case, there is no confirmation that such research actually was carried out.
The point is, of course, that such a virus would have enormous potential to produce a pandemic. As we know, the virus that has swept the world has this property so a leak of the virus would have been disastrous. At this writing however there is absolutely no evidence for a leak.
So while the vast majority of informed scientific opinion expresses “high confidence” in a natural animal to human initiation of the pandemic, as was the case with the two earlier coronavirus pandemic, a leak remains a possibility, a possibility the support for which should be expressed as “possible but highly unlikely.”
The importance of this approach relates to the imperative that we are confident we will have new virus pandemics associated with animal to human transmission in the future and we must prepare for that probability even as we continue with efforts to tame a virus that has shown how adept it is at developing mutations to try and evade our immune systems attempts to kill it.
For this reason, Mr Albanese, we need to accelerate the creation of our promised “Center for Disease Control”. [https://johnmenadue.com/towards-an-australian-centre-for-disease-control/]
It is true that China deserves all the criticism it is receiving for not allowing more international scientists free reign to investigate the origins of the pandemic in China and to have unfettered access to the scientist and their work in the Wuhan laboratory. I suspect they are as frustrated as we are.
As for the ‘here and now’, can I close by urging far more Australians to get vaccinated as winter approaches. It’s just not true that we are an adequately immunised country. All over 65 should be seeking a fifth dose of vaccine, far too many have only had three injections! All need to appreciate that getting infected, even if the acute infection only produces mild symptoms, leaves one exposed to the possibility of experiencing the truly catastrophic “long Covid” syndrome which can also devastate children who can experience, post-infection, other serious inflammatory problems as well.
For more on this topic, P&I recommends: