Virulent research

| Updated on May 27, 2021

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has once again come under the radar   -  REUTERS

Debate on Covid origins raises issues on effective regulation of virology research

The Biden administration has ordered a 90-day intelligence probe into the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus — responding to a growing body of scientific opinion that the killer virus leaked out of China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology months before the outbreak of the pandemic. The ground has shifted dramatically since March, when the WHO inspection team that visited Wuhan handed out a clean chit to China, absolving it of any lab leak, despite mounting circumstantial evidence against such a conclusion. The WHO has pushed the natural origin theory — even as there is little to suggest that the virus indeed travelled over a 1,000 miles from a colony of bats in Yunnan to Wuhan city. The lens is once again on China, WHO — and in fact even the US — thanks to a recent leak of a US intelligence report prepared towards the end of the Trump administration. The January 15, 2021 ‘Fact sheet’ observes: “The WIV has a published record of conducting “gain-of-function” research to engineer chimeric viruses. But the WIV has not been transparent or consistent about its record of studying viruses most similar to the COVID-19 virus.” Gain-of-function research is an exercise in gene/virus manipulation that strengthens the strain to make it act on the human body. The purported intent is to develop a vaccine, in case such mutations occur in nature. That such research can be damaging is evident from the havoc that Covid has wreaked on the world. Gain-of-function research implicates the US, for it turns out that the US too has funded the WIV’s research efforts in this area.

Going forward, virology research should be conducted with more responsibility and transparency. Even as the US and China trade allegations all over again (dirty labs have been a US feature as well), the EU, India and others must insist on a rules-based approach. The leading role of China and Russia, both ‘closed’ political systems, in virology and gene research cannot be wished away. Rather than try to shift research out of their domains, countries with open, democratic systems should team up with them — as the US has in fact done, though in a controversial way.

There is a multilateral template in place for clean bio research — the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992, and the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The former says that “countries shall establish or maintain the means to regulate, manage or control the risks associated with the use and release of living modified organisms...” The latter insists on multi-nation transparency, while dwelling at length on conditions for the safe handling of living organisms, such as bio-safety levels in labs. India should focus on concerns arising out of biotech research. As for the US, the probe findings should be taken forward to the logical conclusion of reining in or even ending such dangerous biological research anywhere in the world; the probe should not become a mere diplomatic tool to be brandished against China.

Published on May 27, 2021

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