- THE TELEGRAPH - Sarah Knapton, SCIENCE EDITOR - Mar 8, 2023 -
Idea that the virus escaped from Chinese city used to be widely dismissed, but is now becoming ever more plausible
When Covid-19 first emerged in Wuhan in December 2019, many pointed out that the outbreak was close to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
Of all the cities in the world, a deadly coronavirus had popped up just eight miles from laboratories where scientists were importing and tinkering with deadly bat coronaviruses.
Even Wuhan scientists themselves were concerned. Dr Shi Zhengli, WIV virologist, told Scientific American that she remembered thinking if coronaviruses were behind the outbreak “could they have come from our lab?”
It should not have been so controversial. Laboratory leaks are fairly common, with smallpox, swine flu, anthrax, and foot and mouth disease all known to have escaped from facilities in recent decades.
In 2004, the Sars virus leaked from a high-containment research laboratory in Beijing at least three times, causing local outbreaks - so such a scenario was far from unprecedented.
Behind the scenes, international scientists were also worried. The virus had come out of nowhere, seemingly pre-adapted to infect humans, and no intermediary host could be found.
An email from Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, in February 2020 said that “a likely explanation” was that Covid had rapidly evolved from a Sars-like virus inside human tissue in a low-security laboratory.
The email, to Dr Anthony Fauci and Dr Francis Collins, of the US National Institutes of Health, said that such evolution may have “accidentally created a virus primed for rapid transmission between humans”. Sir Jeremy warned that research in Wuhan was like the “Wild West”, with experiments carried out at worrying biosecurity levels.
But Dr Collins, the former director of the US National Institutes of Health, argued that further debate on the subject could damage “international harmony”. The comment would come to typify why it has been so difficult to get to the bottom of the origins of Covid.
As Matt Hancock’s original biography drafts show, the world was terrified of upsetting China.
Over the next few months, scientists did what they could to steer investigations away from a laboratory leak, pushing journals to publish letters and papers that dismissed concerns as “conspiracy theories”.
Only in the US was the possibility being seriously considered, where Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, argued there was “enormous evidence” that the virus had leaked from Wuhan.
In May 2020, US intelligence discovered there had been an emergency shutdown at WIV in October 2019, coupled with a suspicious fall in mobile phone activity. But the political gulf between the Trump administration and most scientists led to the allegations being disparaged as anti-Chinese racism.
When an investigation by the World Health Organisation concluded that the virus had most likely jumped from animals to humans in a zoonotic spillover event, the case seemed closed.
In fact, it was not until Mr Trump left office in January 2021 that the tide began to turn and slowly scientists put their heads above the parapet.
In a letter to the journal Science in May 2021, 18 of the world’s top epidemiologists and geneticists from institutions including Cambridge, Harvard and Stanford universities called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the pandemic.
By that time, a collective of virologists and hackers had also found evidence showing that Wuhan scientists had been tweaking bat coronaviruses to make them more deadly - and doing so with funding from the US government.
In 2010, WIV embarked on “gain of function experiments” to increase the infectiousness of Sars coronavirus in humans. By 2015, Wuhan scientists had created a highly infectious chimeric virus that targeted the human upper respiratory tract.
In 2018 and 2019, grants from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US showed that Dr Zhengli had applied to work on “virus infection experiments in humanised mice” using Sars coronaviruses - to find out what changes could lead to a spillover event into humans.
As Harvard scientist Alina Chan told MPs at the House of Commons science and technology select committee: “You find these scientists who said in early 2018: ‘I’m going to put horns on horses,’ and at the end of 2019 a unicorn turns up in Wuhan city.”
Freedom of Information requests also revealed that under the US-China Predict project, Wuhan researchers collected bat coronaviruses from China and south-east Asia. These were sent to various laboratories hundreds of miles away for “sequencing”, “archiving”, “analysis” and “manipulation”.
WIV had collected more than 220 Sars-related coronaviruses, at least 100 of which were never made public. Members of staff were also photographed wearing inadequate levels of personal protective equipment while handing bats.
But to date, Beijing has failed to disclose much of the work that was happening and removed a database of viral sequences shortly before the pandemic erupted.
By the summer of 2021, US intelligence had also discovered that three researchers at WIV had sought treatment at a hospital after falling ill in November 2019 - weeks before China told the world about Covid.
Then in August 2021, the head of the WHO’s pandemic origins investigation made the bombshell admission that he had been pressured into ruling out a laboratory leak to avoid arguments with China.
Dr Peter Embarek said it was actually a “likely hypothesis” that a laboratory employee could have picked up the virus while working in the field and brought it back to Wuhan.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, was forced to admit that a laboratory leak had been ruled out prematurely and set up a new inquiry to examine the origins of the pandemic.
More than 18 months on, that inquiry has gone nowhere, with members complaining they have been stonewalled by China. In response, Beijing claims the inquiries are politically motivated and has even suggested the pandemic may have begun in the US.
Last October, a US Senate committee concluded that the Covid-19 pandemic was “more likely than not” the result of a laboratory accident and told China it would need to prove otherwise.
And last week Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, said that the bureau believes Covid-19 most likely originated in a Chinese laboratory. A US energy department report released in February also came to the same conclusion.
A US House of Representatives sub-committee hearing on the pandemic origins opened on Wednesday in the latest attempt to get to the truth.
Yet China continues to dig in its heels and, without access to its laboratories and records, investigations are now at an impasse.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, believes that if any evidence existed, it has likely now been destroyed.
The political will to probe deeper also seems lacking outside of the GOP. If the Cabinet Office notes are to be believed, the British Government appears to view links to the Wuhan laboratory as entirely coincidental.
But with each passing day, a laboratory leak becomes more plausible. When scientists hunted for the source of the original Sars, a small team found it within six months.
It is now more than three years since the start of the pandemic and, despite an unprecedented search, no animal host for Covid-19 has ever been found. Perhaps because it never existed in the wild.