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Three years on, confusion continues on origins of Covid-19 pandemic

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Close to three years since early reports of a novel corona virus emerged from China, the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus continue to divide the scientific and political community.

An interim report from a US Senate Committee, released just days ago, has pointed to a research-related incident, putting the lab leak theory back on the table.

“Based on analysis of the publicly available information, it appears reasonable to conclude that the Covid-19 pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident. New information, made publicly available and independently verifiable, could change this assessment. However, the hypothesis of a natural zoonotic origin no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt, or the presumption of accuracy,” said the report from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Minority oversight staff. This, even as the report called for more information to arrive at a definitive understanding on the origins of the virus that caused the pandemic.

In December 2019, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) country office in China had picked up on “viral pneumonia” in Wuhan, reported by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. Further probing revealed reports on this cluster of cases of “pneumonia of unknown cause” in Wuhan.

But the virus emergence timeline continues to unravel, with some scientists who visited ground-zero in Wuhan indicating to October 2019.

The latest US report adds to raging discussions on the “gain of function” research, that involves modifying viruses/ bacteria, in labs.

It mentions the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) advanced research on corona viruses and alleged issues with biosafety. Further, it points to a US connection, saying, “The EcoHealth Alliance NIH grants and DARPA grant proposals, in partnership with the WIV, sought to collect and conduct genetic recombination experiments on SARS-related coronaviruses with specific traits that made those viruses a “high-risk” for zoonotic spillover into animals and humans. SARS-CoV-2 shares many of the traits these researchers were interested in finding in SARS-related coronaviruses or interested in engineering such traits if they were not found naturally.”

Outstanding questions

Early investigations by an international team of experts under the WHO, had indicated that the lab-leak theory was a highly unlikely scenario. But this observation was reversed by the WHO chief, who put all hypotheses back on the table.

The circle of confusion continues, said a scientist in India, on the US report. Posing some outstanding questions, the US report asked, “What is the intermediate host species for SARS-CoV-2? Where did it first infect humans? Where is SARS-CoV-2’s viral reservoir? How did SARS-CoV-2 acquire its unique genetic features, such as its furin cleavage site?”

“Advocates of a zoonotic origin theory must provide clear and convincing evidence that a natural zoonotic spillover is the source of the pandemic, as was demonstrated for the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak. In other words, there needs to be verifiable evidence that a natural zoonotic spillover actually occurred, not simply that such a spillover could have occurred,” the report concluded.



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