Man-made virus claim falls flat with scientists

Lab-grown, or natural? Farah Hancock looks at what scientists are saying about US claims the virus was made in a laboratory.

US officials are suggesting hundreds of thousands of people are dead because an engineered virus somehow got out of a laboratory in Wuhan.

It’s a suggestion that has emerged, in part, because as yet no patient zero has been identified.

In the vacuum of answers, and after years of warnings of the risk of a disease spilling over from animals and causing a pandemic, scientists say to assume the virus is man-made is to pick the least likely scenario from far more likely explanations.

The US claim has been made numerous times over the past days. At the time of writing, more than 71,000 Americans had died due to Covid-19. As mass graves are dug and filled, a blame game has seen the World Health Organisation and China singled out. 

Speaking about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, US secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the ABC’s This Week show: “There is enormous evidence that that’s where this began.”

“Look, the best experts so far seem to think it was manmade. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point.”

US President Donald Trump and Pompeo’s stance that the virus is man-made isn’t shared by all officials. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army General Mark Milley has a taken a different view.

“The weight of evidence - nothing’s conclusive - the weight of evidence is that it was natural and not man-made.” 

Was it engineered?

There’s a quote from the 1940s given to medical students by an American professor. 

“When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras.”

Massey University’s professor David Hayman is an epidemiologist and an expert in zoonoses - the diseases that jump from animal to human, like SARS, Ebola and MERS.

He’s hearing horses.

“There’s so much evidence to suggest it’s definitely not man-made.”

Making a brand-new virus from scratch would take a huge team a long time and a lot of cash to achieve. 

“We really don’t understand what leads one virus to infect a human cell and not another. To generate this from scratch - it wouldn’t be impossible - but you would have to try so many different variants.”

The other approach is taking an existing virus and tinkering with it. This is done for various reasons: sometimes to make subunit vaccines, and sometimes in what are called ‘gain-of-function’ studies where scientists aim to increase the transmissibility of viruses. 

There’s debate about the ethics of gain-of-function studies, and in the US, funding for them was stopped from 2014 to 2017.

On one side of the debate, scientists argue these studies are essential to better understand how a virus works and could help with vaccine research. The contrasting argument is engineering a virus to be more infectious, for example changing a virus spread by droplets to be airborne - even in ferrets - is too risky.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, the potential of bioterrorism became another reason for tinkering. Finding out what’s possible could help nations prepare for any potential attack. 

Scientists created a form of mousepox which killed vaccinated mice and was resistant to antiviral treatment. The mousepox virus is a relative to the deadly smallpox, the only human virus known to be eradicated in the wild.

When tinkering occurs, the scientists can leave traces of their efforts. In the case of the virus responsible for Covid-19, the normal tell-tale signs of manipulation are missing. 

“You would expect to see cuts, recombination events, you would expect to see great changes in the genome. There’s no evidence of that,” said Hayman.

It’s a view shared in an article published in Nature regarding the origin of the virus. "Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”

Hayman thinks the chances it was man-made are “almost nil”.

“You would then also have to have so many other coincidences to have occurred, that the most probable thing is it's a natural virus.”

A monumental mistake and determined cover-up

Even if the virus is natural, could it still have come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

“For that to have happened there has to have been a cover-up. I suppose the question is, do you believe there has been a cover-up.”

There’s a negligence theory that has been put forward by various groups. Fuelling the theory are warnings sent by US officials to Washington about inadequate safety at the laboratory. These were sent in 2018.

The cable said the lab lacked appropriately trained technicians and investigators to operate safely. 

There’s no evidence the virus came from the laboratory though. 

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is a biosecurity level four laboratory. These are designed to contain the most dangerous of pathogens. They have airtight doors, dedicated supply and exhaust airflow systems, and a negative-pressure environment. People working within them look like land-based astronauts as they must wear positive-pressure ‘space’ suits.

The researcher placed at the centre of the laboratory's research into bat-related coronavirus, Shi Zhengli, told Scientific American she feared the worst when she heard of the outbreak. Her work had been concentrated on stopping a bat-related coronavirus. Now she worried her laboratory might be involved in an outbreak. 

All the samples from patients were tested against the virus samples she and her team had been working with. There wasn’t a match between the virus patients were infected with and what was in the laboratory. 

“That really took a load off my mind,” she told Scientific American. “I had not slept a wink for days.”

Another rumour that circulated is that patient zero was a scientist at the laboratory and is now missing. This was denied in a statement by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which said the person was a former student at the institute who graduated in 2015. It said she had lived elsewhere since graduation, is not infected and is in good health. 

The balance of probabilities

The other way the virus could have established itself in humans is the old fashioned way. It jumped from an animal to a human, or even from animal to animal to human.

“I think the problem is there just happens to be a coincidence that there was a laboratory in Wuhan that does work on the viruses,” said Hayman.

While coincidences can fuel conspiracy theories, he feels the probability lies in a natural outbreak.

“We know we are getting outbreaks of these types of viruses, not this coronavirus, but related viruses, we get outbreaks all around the world all throughout time … We’ve got evidence that the virus [coronaviruses] are going from bats or some other host to people or bat to pigs quite frequently.”

He said two main types of coronavirus were thought to have evolved in bats, and two in birds.

“They are spread all around the world. What we don’t really understand is why some coronavirus will jump the species barrier potentially more easily than others.”

Even bats on New Zealand’s Codfish Island have been found to have a coronavirus.

“But you need there to be not just the right virus, but the right contacts between susceptible people and the virus. It seems that these SARS-related coronaviruses are more prevalent in China.”

Throw human population density and contact potential - whether that's wet markets or high-density pig farming - into the mix and the risk ratchets up, said Hayman. 

“We’re creating opportunities for the virus of bats to have contact with people or pigs, or whatever it may be, that leads to infection going from one to the other.”

The risk for exactly what has happened has been raised previously. A March 2019 review suggested as much: "It is generally believed that bat-borne CoVs will re-emerge to cause the next disease outbreak. In this regard, China is a likely hotspot. The challenge is to predict when and where, so that we can try our best to prevent such outbreaks."

With evidence weighted toward the likelihood of a naturally-emerging coronavirus, choosing to give more credence to a coincidence is a leap, according to Hayman.

“You have to basically dismiss all the other evidence that will suggest this is a natural event and believe there’s been widespread lying and this is a massive cover-up.” 

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