The Origins of Covid-19: What Were the Final Steps?

Photograph Source: Michael Rhode – CC BY 2.0

It has now been nearly two years since the human species was presented with the conundrum of the origins of a pandemic disease that eventually came to kill more than 5 million people worldwide, with the numbers growing every day. There are always controversies about epidemics, but unlike with AIDS in its early days, few have claimed that a virus was not the precipitating cause of COVID-19, although there were many like Trump and his followers who downplayed its seriousness.

Instead, the main controversy has been how the pandemic virus originated. While this debate has been exceptionally rancorous, what is not generally recognized is how much agreement there is among the adversaries. Nearly everyone agrees that the virus, SARS-CoV2, is derived from a type of coronavirus that is endemic to, and tolerated by, bats, and that it emerged after a few genetic changes in the city of Wuhan, in the Huwei province of China.

Those changes made the virus particularly well suited to attaching to human cells that line the respiratory tract and blood vessels, and particularly pathogenic in some vulnerable subpopulations – the old, the obese, the diabetic. It is also unpredictably fatal in some individuals with no obvious predispositions. But these random strikes are rare, leaving ample opportunity for people to live in fear, or alternatively, to disdain those who do, depending on temperamental proclivities that under the current situation inevitably align with political allegiance.

So where and how did the last few steps occur that turned a virus which was innocuous in animals to one that is devastating in humans? Infectious diseases have frequently emerged from spillovers from wild or domesticated animals that have come into contact with humans in unnatural settings like farms and food markets, or degraded habitats. This has been the preferred explanation for emergent diseases by the scientific community, and since there is a food market in Wuhan that sells live animals, including some exotic species, it was readily taken up in an environment predisposed to negativity concerning China. But the Wuhan live food market was not selling bats. Moreover, there are few wild bats in Wuhan, and those harboring viruses related to SARS-Cov2 live in Chinese caves hundreds of miles from Wuhan or in other regions of southeast Asia, such as Laos. Further, how the virus evolved to be so well adapted to humans in bats or other intermediate species and wind up at the Wuhan market was a mystery considering that no SARS-Cov2 or related viruses have been detected in any wild animals in or around the market or elsewhere in Wuhan.

There are also several laboratories in Wuhan which work on bat viruses, including SARS-type coronaviruses. One of these is the only Biosafety level (BSL) 4 lab in China, operating under internationally agreed standards for the most hazardous kinds of microbiological and virus research. Leaks of experimental viruses have often occurred from research labs throughout the world, and a few have caused infectious outbreaks. But the scientific establishment resists lab leak scenarios since they raise questions about their capacity to conduct their activities safely and threaten to bring scientists under increased scrutiny and to impose additional controls on their work.

Conventional opinion in the U.S. was happy to go along with the claims of prominent scientists and scientific administrators such as infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci and National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins that allegation of release of an experimental virus from a Wuhan lab (accidental, in all reasonable versions) was a “conspiracy theory.” A Wuhan lab leak (like the Wuhan market origin) would by itself have been compatible with mainstream Sinophobia. But the eagerness of Trump and his cohorts to play the “China virus” card, along with the recognition that coronavirus research in Wuhan was conducted in close collaboration with the University of North Carolina research group directed by Ralph Baric and the EcoHealth Alliance, a multidisciplinary New York-based organization headed by Peter Daszac (which would have implicated the U.S. in the laboratory scenario) drove many away from this plausible position. The fact that this work had been conducted with the approval of Fauci and Collins themselves made the mobilization by these figures of strenuous rejection of the Wuhan lab leak conjecture (as noted by the journalist Sam Husseini) an actual conspiracy.

The circumstantial case for the human adaptation of SARS-CoV2 during transit in a Wuhan laboratory is made persuasively by two excellent books, “The Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years: An Investigation” by Elaine Dewar, a Canadian science journalist, and “Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19” by Matt Ridley and Alina Chan, respectively a science popularizer and a molecular biologist. The two books come to essentially identical conclusions by entirely different methods. Dewar explicitly followed the model of the legendary U.S. political journalist I.F. Stone, scrutinizing the public record, doggedly pursuing inconsistencies, taking note of abrupt termination of phone conversations. Her book is a saga of the concomitant growth of expertise and rage. Chan began as a trained expert, a genetics researcher at the MIT-affiliated Broad Institute, who put her career on hold to track the SARS-CoV2 origins story as it emerged (often against the desires of Chinese researchers in Wuhan and their U.S. collaborators) in the scientific literature, as well as by the freelance efforts of the DRASTIC (Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19) activist group and the Ithaca, New York-based Bioscience Resource Project.

Similar views on the laboratory origin of SARS-Cov2 have been put forward by others with more questionable intellectual pedigrees – Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is a skeptic on anthropogenic climate change, and the science journalist Nicholas Wade, who wrote a long piece on the subject in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is an advocate of genetic “race science” – specifics that feature in lazy dismissals of the lab leak hypothesis in the absence of any evidence at all of natural emergence. (Another advocate of the lab leak scenario, think-tanker Jamie Metzl, has recently written a book advocating human germline genetic engineering.) But Dewar and Chan “show their work” (you can virtually watch how their ideas take form) and for this reason can serve as honest guides in the face of incomplete (and withheld) evidence.

Since these books were written, new information has emerged in the form of leaked and FOIA-obtained grant proposals, one funded by the NIH and one turned down by the U.S. military research agency DARPA, that document collaborative work and planned experiments by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the U.S. EcoHealth Alliance. As described in articles in The Intercept by Sharon Lerner, Maia Hibbett, and Mara Hvistendahl, this work included culturing bat coronaviruses isolated from the wild with human lung cells, and infection with such viruses of “humanized” mice (mice genetically engineered to have human virus-binding receptors) to develop variants that were more infectious for humans (the objective presumably being eventual vaccine design). The investigators also proposed inserting a “furin cleavage site” into some of the bat coronaviruses, an infection-enabling feature of the virus spike protein not found in bat viruses most closely related to SARS-CoV2. It has also come to light that among the bat virus isolates brought to and studied in the Wuhan lab were ones from Laos. The fact that the identified bat virus with the best genetic match to SARS-CoV2 was found at a site 1000 miles away from Wuhan was previously used to discredit the lab leak hypothesis.

For those following the score of this Danse Macabre, this is where we stand right now.

Stuart A. Newman, Ph.D. is a professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, and co-author (with Tina Stevens) of Biotech Juggernaut: Hope, Hype, and Hidden Agendas of Entrepreneurial Bioscience (Routledge).