I smell a bat

Greater horseshoe bat, animalcorner.org

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live through one of those those pivotal points in human history. Those times, like Kristallnacht, that in the future we collectively remember as being when life moved from being ordinary to horrifying.

Is this where we are now? Is #coronavirus about to upend all of our lives, our global economy and our human psyche in ways we can’t quite comprehend, or is this another phase that will pass and normality will return again? 

From the pronouncements of the World Health Organisation (WHO), heads of governments and leading epidemiologists, it seems SARS-COV2 has the potential to disrupt the world as we know it. 

The death rate, as it is currently estimated at 2.7%, is twenty times higher than season flu and is compounded by the fact that it is much more infectious than previous coronavirus outbreaks (SARS, Mers). Whereas with SARS people were only infectious when they had a high fever, SARS-COV2 is more stealthlike. People without symptoms of COVID19 (the name of the disease, rather than the virus) seem to be able to transmit the virus, thus making it more difficult to contain. 

This is terrifying, but even more disturbing is a chain of events that led to this. For the past week I have been digging behind the media reports, reading scientific journals, following obscure links on Twitter and the investigations of other journalists, including Simone Gao, who presents Zooming In, produced by NTD (https://www.ntd.com/support-us.html) an independent Chinese media company based in New York. Gao posed the question: could this virus have been leaked from a lab? (https://bit.ly/2uLilu5) and although there is no conclusive answer, the breadcrumb trail is unnerving.

In 2015, a group of scientists published in Nature Medicine that a SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronavirus pose threat for human emergence. How did they know? Because they “generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone “(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26552008). 

Prior to this lab creation, coronaviruses could not move directly from bats to humans. 

The danger of this newly created pathogen was so severe, funding for further “gain of function” research, ie. research that involves experimentation that aims to increase the transmissibility and/or virulence of pathogens – was shut down by the US government. (https://www.nih.gov/about-nih/who-we-are/nih-director/statements/statement-funding-pause-certain-types-gain-function-research). This ban was later lifted by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in December 2017. (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(18)30006-9/fulltext)

However, the 2015 working group did not just include scientists from the US. One was from Switzerland, the other was Dr Shi from the Key Laboratory of Special Pathogens and Biosafety at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This lab, built in 2015, was and remains China’s only Biosafety Level 4 lab, ie. the only lab in China where diseases infectious to humans are permitted to be studied.   

When the Wuhan lab opened, Tim Trevan, the founder of CHROME Biosafety and Biosecurity Consulting in Damascus, Maryland, US, worried that it would be difficult for this lab to operate safely, given the hierarchical culture of China. He told Nature magazine in 2017: “An open culture is important to keeping BSL-4 labs safe.
“Diversity of viewpoint, flat structures where everyone feels free to speak up and openness of information are important”, and questioned how easy this would be in China. (https://www.nature.com/news/inside-the-chinese-lab-poised-to-study-world-s-most-dangerous-pathogens-1.21487)

In the interleaving years, the SARS virus did escape from high-level containment facilities in Beijing multiple times, and five years later, here we are with a SARS-like bat coronavirus, that can jump from human to human on the loose: epicentre Wuhan. And we know too that the local government initially tried to suppress information about this virus, when on 3 January they accused Dr Li Wenliang, who first raised alarm about the novel virus and later died from it, of “spreading false rumours” and “seriously disrupting social order”. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/06/li-wenliang-coronavirus-whistleblower-doctor-profile)

Since then the Wuhan lab has denied that it is to blame. Dr Shi has even sworn on her own life that the lab had nothing to do with it, and scientists around the world say that they too believe that this virus has evolved naturally, although also admit they can’t say for certain (https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3051167/scientists-hit-back-rumours-engineered-coronavirus).

In February The Scripps Institute published a paper titled The Proximal Origin of SARS-COV2, in which they noted that since there have been “documented instances of the laboratory acquisition of SARS-CoV-1 by laboratory personnel working under BSL-2 containment. We must therefore consider the possibility of a deliberate or inadvertent release of SARS-CoV-2”, but go on to explain that although in theory it is possible the current virus adapted in cell culture, the genomic data of SARS-COV2 argues against it. (http://virological.org/t/the-proximal-origin-of-sars-cov-2/398)

So right now the narrative is that the Wuhan Seafood market is probably the epicentre, although of the initial 41 cases, 14 had no association with the market (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30183-5/fulltext) . In early February we heard that the virus probably made the leap via a pangolin, with the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou saying there was a 99% match between the human virus and that found in a pangolin. That was then retracted and the match was said to be closer to 91%, which as it turns out, is not much of a match at all. (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00548-w)

So what is the truth? What has happened to bring us to this fearful new world? Is it just a massive co-incidence that the only lab to study coronavirus in China happens to be in Wuhan? Did someone illegally sell infected wildlife delicacies from the back door of the laboratory to the Wuhan Seafood market – a little Chinese New Year treat? Was Wuhan set up to be the fall guy for something that was exported from elsewhere?

I am not a scientist, nor a conspiracy theorist, but I am a concerned global citizen and a mother, and by god, I smell a bat.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

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