Rajkamal Rao

Did the novel coronavirus come from a lab after all?

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on November 07, 2021

Covid Origin mystery   -  /iStockphoto

After initial signs of the virus’s zoonotic origins, there now seems to be increasing pointers to the lab leak theory

Since the dawn of the coronavirus outbreak, the big tech companies have played traffic cops to “limit misinformation” by delegating to the so-called experts. If the World Health Organization and other reputed virologists insisted that Covid’s origins were natural, Big Tech blindly went with the explanation arguing that science has spoken. Never mind that scientific theories, since the time of Newton, have always had multiple points of view.

As opinion slowly turns to facts, let us review our understanding to date.

As of October 31, 247 million people worldwide have tested positive for Covid-19, an astonishingly high 3.1 per cent global infection rate. Five million have died.

Nicholas Wade, a former science writer for The New York Times, has written extensively about Covid’s origins. In a landmark article on May 9 this year in the New York Post, he deconstructed the complex history for the average reader. He argued that there could only be two possible origins for Covid-19: Natural or a lab leak.

Under the natural scenario, the virus jumped from bats to humans, like the SARS 1 epidemic in 2002. But it takes time and multiple mutations for viruses to perfect their adjustment to the new target species (humans) and become this deadly.

The plausible theory

The lab leak theory was more plausible. The bats that are hosts to the Covid-19 virus live in the Yunnan caves in Southern China, more than 1,000 miles away from Wuhan, home to several microbiology labs, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Dr Zheng-li Shi, a lead researcher in Wuhan, had spent her entire career devising spike proteins. She had genetically altered the lungs of mice to resemble human lungs. She extracted SARS2 Covid viruses from the Yunnan bats and injected them with spike proteins to get them to better latch onto target cells.

Scientists perform such dangerous “gain of function” research as a service to humanity. The goal is primarily innocent: See what viruses can do in a lab setting, devise state-of-the-art defenses, and be ready when real viruses mutate naturally and spread in the field. In fact, the Wuhan lab was partially funded with a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the premier research facility in the US. NIH funneled the money through Peter Daszak, president of the New York City-based EcoHealth Alliance, which invested in such moonshot projects. But there was always a risk. If the lab isn't careful with its security — everyone should wear bubble suits in environments certified at BSL4, the highest-level safety ever designed — leaks can occur. Indeed, Dr Shi has admitted that nearly all her coronavirus research was performed at just a BSL2 level of safety.

When Wade’s piece came out, the world yawned, and the article miraculously survived on social media. Luckily, Twitter and Facebook don’t control what happens on television.

On June 15, Jon Stewart, the famous ultra-liberal comedian who successfully hosted the Daily Show, a program still available on Indian cable channels, went on the Late Night show with his former mentee, Steven Colbert, another Left-leaning comedian. The two veterans were doing what they do best — entertain but wrap their message in a sheath of world-class humour.

“Science has in many ways eased the suffering of this pandemic..” Stewart deadpanned, “.. which was more than likely caused by science.” Stewart had shocked the liberal world with the last eight words that he had probably practiced dozens of times in the green room.

With the cat out of the bag, major news outlets began letting the secrets out, drip by drip.

“In Major Shift, NIH Admits Funding Risky Virus Research in Wuhan,” screamed an October 22 headline in Vanity Fair, which has led the coverage on this critical topic. On October 29, the Washington Post leaked an American intelligence assessment replete with references to the lab-leak theory. Still, it went out of the way to assert that nothing was conclusive. Of course.

Former President Donald Trump first suggested on April 30, 2020, that the virus probably originated in a lab. The world vehemently shot his words down. Of course.

The writer is Managing Director, Rao Advisors LLC, US

Published on November 07, 2021

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