Even if the coronavirus did leak from a Wuhan lab, that wouldn’t necessarily mean it was engineered

china lab coronavirus
A laboratory physician at the China Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prepares to test a coronavirus specimen in Chongqing, China, on May 3, 2020

Two weeks ago, President Joe Biden asked the US intelligence community to redouble its efforts to find out how the pandemic started: Did the coronavirus jump from animals to people, or did it leak from a Chinese lab?

Any investigation of a potential lab leak – the possibility that a lab worker got infected then spread the virus to other people – must in turn consider two options. One is that a worker was exposed to a raw virus sample collected from bats or other animals, while the other is that the virus was genetically engineered. The evidence for either option remains sparse, so the whole notion is still considered highly unlikely.

So far, much of the discourse about the lab-leak theory has centered on the latter idea: that researchers in Wuhan modified the virus before it escaped a lab. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed even pointed to one particular piece of the coronavirus’ genome as evidence of scientific manipulation. Confirming that the virus was manipulated would, of course, show that it came out of a lab.

But the opposite isn’t true: Even if the virus didn’t undergo any laboratory manipulation, that wouldn’t rule out a lab escape.

A ‘smoking gun’?

coronavirus spike protein
Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, holds up a model of the coronavirus.

The starting point nearly all scientists agree on in this debate is that two known bat coronaviruses are a 96% and 97% match for the coronavirus’ genetic make-up. A recent study suggests another virus found in bats from southern China could be an even closer relative.

But since scientists have yet to find a bat population harboring an exact match, a lab leak can’t be definitively ruled out.

Those who consider the lab theory to be unlikely are quick to point out that the coronavirus’s genetic code has no tell-tale hallmarks of being engineered. A March 2020 study analyzed the virus’ DNA and concluded that it “is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”

However, the people who do think the coronavirus might have been engineered focus on a few particular areas of its genome.

Steven Quay, founder and president of biopharmaceutical company Atossa Therapeutics Inc., argued in the Wall Street Journal that investigators should look closely at a part of the coronavirus’ spike protein that cleaves in half in order to prep the virus to enter human cells.

Many viruses use an enzyme that chops them up into smaller pieces to help them better invade cells. Different viruses use a variety of types of chops, and some work better than others. One particular chop is called the furin cleavage site. If the virus splits right here, Quay argues, it becomes “supercharged.” The new coronavirus’ closest known relatives do not have this site, but other coronaviruses have it, and research suggests it can arise naturally.

Quay told Insider, however, that 11 labs around the world “have purposefully put in a furin site to make a virus more infectious.”

One of those labs, he said, is the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where researchers studied bat coronaviruses before the pandemic. Some of that work involved tweaking viruses to make them more lethal and infectious as a way to anticipate future pandemics – what’s called gain-of-function research.

David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, has called the coronavirus’ furin cleavage site a “smoking gun” for the lab-leak theory. He told journalist Nicholas Wade last month that the site’s presence in the coronavirus poses a “powerful challenge to the idea of a natural origin.”

However, Baltimore has since walked back that comment, saying Wade took his quote out of context.

Efficient human-to-human transmission

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Members of Blue Sky rescue team disinfect the Wuhan Qintai Grand Theatre on January 24, 2021.

Quay also points to the coronavirus’ highly infectious nature as evidence that it could be man-made.

“Natural viruses don’t support human-to-human transmission from the beginning,” he said.

Former CDC director Robert Redfield, too, has said the virus could have gotten better at infecting people in a facility like the WIV.

“Most of us in a lab, when we’re trying to grow a virus, we’re trying to make it grow better,” Redfield told CNN in March.

Indeed, scientists sometimes introduce viruses to human cells in a lab over and over again to see if the virus will evolve to become better at infecting those cells.

“But there’s a limitation to that approach if your intent is evil,” John Doench, a scientist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, told Insider. “Because the virus is only getting good at what you asked it to do – infecting cells in a dish.”

It’s another thing, he said, for a virus to do that effectively in the human body, which is protected by the immune system – a luxury not afforded to lab-cultured cells.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said he thinks it’s more likely that the coronavirus got good at jumping between people while spreading “below the radar” in China in late 2019. Growing evidence suggests COVID-19 was spreading for weeks, if not months, before the first cases were reported.

That’s probably what led the virus “to be pretty well adapted when first recognized,” Fauci said in March.

Doench said he thinks observational bias may be leading people to incorrectly assume a lab leak is more probable than it really is.

“We’re observing the one virus that did break through and cause and pandemic, not the billions of other viruses that failed to do so,” he said.

A cancer cell that’s incredibly efficient at spreading in the human body “may seem engineered,” Doench added, but that’s because we’re not comparing it to the 40 trillion other cells that didn’t turn into cancer.

Accidents do happen

wuhan institute of virology
An aerial view of the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China’s Hubei province on May 27, 2020.

Those who think the coronavirus might have jumped from an unaltered lab sample to a lab worker mostly cite past instances in which that exact thing happened. SARS, another coronavirus, has leaked from labs four times: in Taiwan, Singapore, and China. In 2004, two researchers in Beijing got infected with SARS and passed it to seven other people.

Three years ago, US officials visiting Wuhan sent a pair of memos to the State Department warning of inadequate safety measures there. And a report obtained by the Wall Street Journal suggested three WIV staff were hospitalized with “COVID-like” symptoms in the fall of 2019.

However, it’s possible the virus had already started to spread in the city by then, and the World Health Organization team that visited Wuhan to investigate the pandemic’s origin said it was satisfied with the WIV’s safety protocol.

Peter Ben Embarek, a scientist specializing in animal disease who was on that WHO trip, said it’s natural to speculate about a link between one of the labs in Wuhan and the coronavirus outbreak there.

wuhan institute of virology
Guards stand outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology on February 3, 2021.

“Even the staff in these labs told us that was their first reaction when they heard about this new emerging disease, this coronavirus: ‘This is something coming out of our labs,'” Ben Embarek said in March.

But the WIV seems to have made rigorous changes since the State Department memos, and Ben Embarek said it now houses a “state-of-the-art lab.”

That’s part of the reason his WHO team thinks it’s “very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place.”

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US officials may have avoided the coronavirus lab-leak theory to avoid associations with controversial gain-of-function research

wuhan institute of virology
Guards stand outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology on February 3, 2021.

Is the best way to protect people from a dangerous virus to create one in a lab? That’s the central question in the debate over gain-of-function research, a branch of virology that alters viruses in a controlled environment to make them more transmissible or infectious.

Proponents of this type of research say the work enables them to predict deadly pathogens that might emerge in real life and start work on vaccines or treatments ahead. But opponents think the experiments are simply too risky. A lab without proper safety protocol could accidentally release a more transmissible virus into the human population.

Competing theories about the coronavirus’ origin have recently thrust this gain-of-function debate into the spotlight, since a prominent lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was conducting that kind of research on coronaviruses. What’s more, the US has funded grants that supported that lab – which might have given State Department officials an incentive not to thoroughly investigate the possibility of a lab leak, according to a recent Vanity Fair investigation.

Vanity Fair reported that at a December 2020 meeting, US State Department officials were “explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to US government funding of it.”

For years, the US government gave grants to a nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance, which in turn funded gain-of-function research – including studies at the Wuhan institute.

In a January internal memo obtained by Vanity Fair, Thomas DiNanno, former acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, wrote that his colleagues had warned leaders within his bureau “not to pursue an investigation into the origin of COVID-19” because it would “open a can of worms.”

Of course, the possibility that US officials may have wanted to distance themselves from any association with gain-of-function work doesn’t necessarily make the lab-leak theory more credible. The leading theory is still that the virus spilled over to people from animals. That’s because around 75% of all new infectious diseases come to us from animals, and the coronavirus’ genetic code is very similar to that of other coronaviruses found in bats.

Still, a growing chorus of political and public-health leaders are calling for more thorough investigations into the coronavirus’ origin, including the possibility that it leaked from a lab.

How the lab-leak theory reentered the conversation

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Experts from the joint WHO-China team that investigated the coronavirus’ origin attend a press conference in Wuhan on February 9, 2021.

The lab leak theory gained traction again at the end of March, after World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that “all hypotheses remain on the table” as to the virus’ origin – even after a WHO report concluded that a lab leak was unlikely. In a May letter, a group of biologists wrote that the lab-leak theory should be taken seriously “until we have sufficient data.”

Proponents of this possibility usually point to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), since scientists were studying coronaviruses there before the pandemic.

But at the start of the pandemic, scientists quickly shut down the notion that the WIV could be to blame. A February 2020 statement published by 27 scientists in the journal The Lancet said the scientific community had overwhelmingly concluded that the virus originated in wildlife.

“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the statement read.

However, the organizer of that statement was the president of EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak.

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A laboratory on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on May 27, 2020.

In May 2014, EcoHealth received a roughly $3.7 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of which went toward gain-of-function experiments. By 2018, EcoHealth was receiving up to $15 million per year in grant money from federal agencies, according to Vanity Fair.

In one instance, EcoHealth Alliance helped fund research that created a new infectious pathogen using the molecular structure of the SARS virus. The aim of the study, according to the researchers, was to warn of the potential risk of a SARS-related virus re-emerging from bats.

One of the paper’s authors was a prominent WIV virologist, Shi Zhengli. NIAID and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are cited as financial supporters of the research.

The Trump administration canceled EcoHealth’s $3.7 million grant in April 2020. Then the NIH reinstated the grant in July but temporarily suspended its research activities.

Both NIAID director Anthony Fauci and NIH Director Francis Collins have said that US agencies never funded gain-of-function research at the WIV.

“I fully agree that you should investigate where the virus came from,” Fauci told Senator Rand Paul at a Senate hearing last month. “But again, we have not funded gain-of-function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. No matter how many times you say it, it didn’t happen.”

He added, though, that it would have been “irresponsible” if the US hadn’t investigated bat viruses that may have caused the SARS outbreak.

“Are you really saying that we are implicated because we gave a multibillion-dollar institution $120,000 a year for bat surveillance?” Fauci told the Financial Times on Friday.

The US has funded gain-of-function research before

Fauci Biden
Anthony Fauci listens as President Joe Biden speaks at the National Institutes of Health.

The US currently decides whether to fund gain-of-function experiments on a case-by-case basis. A multidisciplinary board at the Department of Health and Human Services evaluates the research to determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

The Trump administration implemented that policy in 2017. Before that, the Obama administration had put a moratorium on new funding for gain-of-function experiments that could make influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses more transmissible – or more likely to cause disease – through respiratory droplets in mammals. But that rule, created in October 2014, still made exceptions for research that was “urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security.”

An NIH official told Vanity Fair that the government’s approach to gain-of-function is complicated, though.

“If you ban gain-of-function research, you ban all of virology,” the official said, adding, “Ever since the moratorium, everyone’s gone wink-wink and just done gain-of-function research anyway.”

Aylin Woodward contributed reporting.

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Fauci says China should share the medical records of Wuhan lab staff who were ill in fall 2019: ‘What did they get sick with?’

wuhan institute of virology
Guards stand outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology on February 3, 2021.

A year and a half ago, before the world had ever heard of the new coronavirus, three staff at a Wuhan lab got sick enough that they went to a hospital.

They worked for the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) – a high-level biosafety lab where researchers had been studying coronaviruses before the pandemic. A US intelligence report described in a The Wall Street Journal story last month said the staff members’ symptoms were “consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness.” The three workers were hospitalized more than a month before Chinese officials identified the first COVID-19 cases in Wuhan.

Although an intelligence official said the report lacked sufficient corroboration, it has helped foster renewed interest in the theory that the coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan lab.

Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this week that he wants China to publicly share the WIV workers’ medical records. Although investigators from the World Health Organization knew about the lab workers’ illnesses, their report concluded the coronavirus was not the cause.

Fauci, however, said the full, detailed records are needed.

“I would like to see the medical records of the three people who are reported to have got sick in 2019,” Fauci told the Financial Times on Friday. “Did they really get sick, and if so, what did they get sick with?”

‘We need better access to information’

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a Senate hearing on June 30, 2020.

The report from the WHO investigation said that all blood samples collected from WIV staff tested negative for coronavirus antibodies. It added that the lab had not reported any “COVID-19 compatible respiratory illness” among its workers prior to December 2019.

Leading WIV virologist Shi Zhengli has also said that none of her staff were ever infected with the new coronavirus, or any other coronaviruses, while working at the lab.

But Marion Koopmans, a virologist on the WHO’s investigation team, told NBC News that Chinese researchers informed her group that the WIV workers were tested for coronavirus antibodies in March and April of 2020. That’s about six months after the three staff were hospitalized. Some research has suggested coronavirus antibodies decline measurably at the six-month mark.

According to WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Koopmans’ team also faced difficulties overall in accessing raw COVID-19 infection data and patient blood samples from in and around Wuhan during their investigation. For the most part, a collaborating group of Chinese scientists and experts provided WHO investigators with access to the information the team used to make their conclusions.

In their report, the team recommended testing blood samples collected in Wuhan between September and December 2019 for coronavirus antibodies. This indicates that few, if any, of those samples were made available to the WHO experts.

“We need better access to all the information,” Fauci said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday.

Experts need to find out whether those WIV workers actually got sick in the first place, Fauci added, and if so, “what was the nature of their illness.”

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Members of the World Health Organization’s team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic attend a press conference in Wuhan on February 9, 2021.

Even if it turns out that the lab workers did indeed get COVID-19, it’s not necessarily an indication that the virus leaked from their institute, Fauci told the Financial Times.

Growing evidence suggests that COVID-19 was spreading for weeks, if not months, before the first cases were reported in December 2019. In March, Fauci said it’s likely that the coronavirus was spreading “below the radar” in China for a while in late 2019, so it’s possible the staff members got infected outside the lab.

An ‘overwhelming likelihood’ that virus jumped naturally from an animal

After their investigation, the WHO team determined that the coronavirus “most likely” jumped from bats to people via an intermediary animal at a wildlife farm in southeastern China. This kind of spillover has been the leading theory throughout the pandemic, primarily because 75% of new infectious diseases come to us from animals.

“I have always felt that the overwhelming likelihood – given the experience we have had with SARS, MERS, Ebola, HIV, bird flu, the swine flu pandemic of 2009 – was that the virus jumped species,” Fauci told the Financial Times.

Plus, the coronavirus’ genetic code is very similar to that of other coronaviruses found circulating in bats. Bats are common virus reservoirs; in the last 46 years, at least four epidemics have been traced back to bats.

“It happens all the time,” Fauci said on “Morning Joe.” “That’s the reason we feel that it’s the most likely, but since we haven’t proven that, you got to keep an open mind.”

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A cyclist rides in front of the closed Huanan seafood market in Wuhan on February 9, 2021.

Scientists have yet to find the intermediary species – or the bat population – that passed the coronavirus to people. The WHO team examined 80,000 animals from 31 provinces across China and didn’t find a single case of the coronavirus.

“You need to keep looking for that link,” Fauci said.

The WHO’s lack of a smoking gun, however, could be because China shut down the particular wildlife farms in question in February 2020. The investigators weren’t given access to samples from animals that had lived at these farms.

The WHO also wasn’t able to analyze samples from any animals sold at the Hunan seafood market in Wuhan – where officials reported the first cluster of coronavirus cases. The market was quickly shuttered and cleaned after the outbreak – a move Fauci called “an epidemiological mistake.”

“They may have wiped out evidence for the jumping of species,” he added.

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A leading scientist said the world needs to understand the origins of COVID-19 to prevent another coronavirus pandemic, adding to a growing number of calls to investigate the lab leak theory

Wuhan Institute of Virology lab
The P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province, April 17, 2020.

  • A growing number of experts are calling for further investigation into the origin of COVID-19.
  • New reports undermine the theory that the virus was transmitted from animals to people.
  • A scientist said understanding the origin is critical for preventing future coronavirus outbreaks.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A prominent scientist said understanding the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic is critical for the sake of future public health.

“There’s going to be covid-26 and covid-32 unless we fully understand the origins of covid-19,” Peter Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor University and a leading expert on the virus, said Sunday on NBC News’s “Meet The Press.”

Hotez’s call for a full investigation into the origin of the pandemic is the latest among experts and politicians to understand if the coronavirus originated in a Wuhan lab.

Dr. Anthony Fauci has also said he’s no longer completely convinced the coronavirus originated naturally.

Since March of this year, there have been several reports that have made experts call on further investigating the origins of the virus.

Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield told CNN in March he still thought the coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The following month, a team from the World Health Organization spent a month in Wuhan investigating the origin of the coronavirus and said a lab leak was “extremely unlikely.” However, WHO said they were unable to access China’s lab and were not given raw data.

This month, The Wall Street Journal reported that three researchers at the lab had gotten sick and went to the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms in November 2019, a month before China said it found its first case.

Last week, President Joe Biden revealed that he asked the intelligence community to create a report on the origins of the virus in March. In light of the new reports, Biden has asked that investigators “redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days.”

Hotez, however, said he doesn’t think an investigation by the intelligence community would be very helpful.

“I’m personally of the opinion that we’ve pushed intelligence about as far as we can. What we need to do is we need to do an outbreak investigation. We need a team of scientists, of epidemiologists, virologists, bat ecologists in Hubei province for a six to six-month, year-long period and fully unravel the origins of COVID-19,” he said.

China has repeatedly denied the claims that the virus originated in their lab and has refused to cooperate with investigations.

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Facebook will no longer remove posts claiming COVID-19 is ‘man-made,’ as Biden calls for a new intelligence report into the virus’ origins

MZ   Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD:AFP via Getty Images
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

  • Facebook will no longer remove posts that claim COVID-19 was “man-made.”
  • President Joe Biden has asked for a new report into COVID-19 ‘s origins.
  • The dominant theory is the virus passed from bats to humans through an intermediary animal.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Facebook will no longer remove posts claiming that COVID-19 is a “man-made” virus, it said Wednesday.

In February, the tech giant said it would take down “debunked” claims that COVID-19 was created by people, but it has reversed its policy amid renewed interest in the virus’ origins from scientists and politicians.

“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps,” a Facebook spokesperson told Insider in an emailed statement.

“We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.”

President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he had asked the intelligence community to “redouble their efforts” to find a definitive answer to the virus’ origins. He gave investigators 90 days to report back.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that three scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) – which studies coronaviruses in bats – were hospitalized in November 2019 with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and other seasonal illnesses. The report cited a US intelligence report viewed by The Journal.

The first documented cases of COVID-19 were in Wuhan, a city in central China, in December 2019. So far, the dominant theory has been that the virus passed from bats to humans through an intermediary animal host. But some still question whether the virus escaped from the WIV in an accidental lab leak.

Claims that COVID-19 is “man-made,” or was created deliberately as a bioweapon, are very different to the lab-leak theory. These claims will now be allowed to circulate on Facebook.

A World Health Organization (WHO) report released in March said that the lab-leak theory was “considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway,” but it could not rule it out.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said at the time that he did “not believe the assessment was extensive enough,” and that the team behind the report faced difficulties in accessing valuable data from the WIV.

Many scientists still believe that a spillover from animals to humans is the most plausible explanation – three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases come from other species, and the COVID-19 virus shares a lot of its genetic code with other coronaviruses in the region.

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The WHO’s leader said its investigation into whether the coronavirus leaked from a Wuhan lab was not ‘extensive enough’

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference organized by Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents (ACANU) amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva Switzerland July 3, 2020.
World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

After a month-long investigation in Wuhan, the World Health Organization has offered the most comprehensive analysis to date of where the coronavirus might have come from and how it could have gotten into the human population.

The WHO report, released Tuesday, lists the coronavirus’ possible origin scenarios in order of their likelihood. At the top is the possibility that the coronavirus jumped from bats to people via an intermediary animal host, perhaps at a wildlife farm in China. Last on the ranking is the controversial theory that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab.

But in a press conference Tuesday, the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he does “not believe that this assessment was extensive enough.”

“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy,” he said. Tedros added that members of the international WHO team who traveled to China “expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data.”

Following the report’s release, the US and a dozen other countries have called for an independent investigation into the coronavirus’ origins – one that would be “free from interference and undue influence,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

A lab leak is ‘extremely unlikely,’ but the WHO didn’t audit Wuhan labs

Tedros said the lab-leak hypothesis should “remain on the table,” since the WHO experts spent only hours at each high-level biosafety lab in Wuhan.

Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO scientist specializing in animal disease, said during the press conference that the group didn’t do “a full investigation or audit” of any particular lab. Overall, he added, the possibility of a lab leak “did not receive the same depth of attention and work” as other hypotheses about the virus’ origin.

Still, the report offers compelling reasons why it’s extremely unlikely the virus escaped from a lab.

The team found no evidence that samples of the new coronavirus existed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where scientists were studying various coronaviruses prior to the pandemic, before the first COVID-19 cases were reported in December 2019.

The WHO also didn’t find any records indicating that viruses closely related to the new coronavirus were kept in any Chinese lab before that month. There were also no viruses that, when combined, could have produced the new coronavirus.

wuhan institute of virology
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.

Additionally, none of the staff in any Wuhan labs studying coronaviruses reported cases of respiratory illnesses “during the weeks/months prior to December 2019,” the report said.

Blood samples from staff during that time (which are taken routinely from biosafety lab workers to monitor their health) also all tested negative for coronavirus antibodies. This suggests no lab workers got infected prior to the pandemic.

‘This is something coming out of our labs’

WHO wuhan
Members of the World Health Organization’s team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic attend a press conference in Wuhan, China, on February 9, 2021.

The WHO team’s report did reveal, however, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) moved to a new location in early December 2019. The new facility happened to be about 8 miles from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, to which China’s first cluster of cases was linked.

That proximity, coupled with the fact that there were multiple labs in Wuhan studying coronaviruses at the time the pandemic began, has led to speculation about a possible link between a lab and the market outbreak.

“Even the staff in these labs told us that was their first reaction when they heard about this new emerging disease, this coronavirus: ‘This is something coming out of our labs,'” Embarek said.

“They all went back to their to their records and work to try to find out if there was a link but nobody could find any trace of something similar to this virus in in their records or their their samples,” he added.

But Embarek’s team didn’t have the resources to fully verify that claim.

“A team of scientists is not qualified to conduct a detailed audit of WIV’s records, or get access to institutional files, lab notebooks, databases, or freezer inventories,” virologist Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and member of the WHO team, told Science.

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A car that’s part of a convoy carrying the World Health Organization team of researchers arrives at the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine also known as the Hubei Province Xinhua Hospital in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.

Dominic Dwyer, a WHO microbiologist who’s worked in high-level biosafety labs before, said on Tuesday that the team was “satisfied there was no obvious evidence of a problem,” in any of the labs they visited. He noted as well that a complete forensic examination of a lab is a complex process, and that was “not what we were there to do.”

The WHO team did, however, speak with managers and staff at the labs about their safety protocol, and confirmed the facilities were well-managed.

A wealth of evidence points to the conclusion that bats first passed the coronavirus to an animal, the WHO experts said. Then that animal population passed it along to humans. Indeed, a May study revealed that the new coronavirus shared 97.1% of its genetic code with a coronavirus called RmYN02, which was found in bats in China’s Yunnan province between May and October 2019.

Bats are common virus hosts – cross-species hops from bat populations also led to the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and the Nipah virus.

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A WHO investigation into the coronavirus’ origins points the finger at animals in Chinese wildlife farms

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A worker in protective GEAR directs members of the World Health Organization team at the airport in Wuhan, China, January 14, 2021.

A new World Health Organization report, set to be released on Tuesday, lists the coronavirus’ possible origin scenarios in order of their likelihood.

According to the the Associated Press, which obtained a draft copy of the report, the most likely option is that the coronavirus jumped from bats to people via an intermediary animal host, perhaps at a wildlife farm in China. Next on the likelihood ranking is the possibility that the virus jumped directly from bats to people.

The report is the product of a month-long investigation by an international team that was sent to Wuhan, China, in January to investigate how the virus got into the human population, and from where. The effort, however, yielded few definitive answers.

The WHO team also evaluated less plausible theories, the AP reported, including that the virus might have spread to humans via frozen food products; the report authors deemed this scenario “not likely.” One hypothesis was labeled “extremely unlikely” and all but dismissed: the possibility that the coronavirus escaped from a Chinese lab.

Chinese wildlife farms are a possible origin site

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A farmer checks rabbits at his farm on January 29, 2021 in Chongqing, China.

The WHO experts behind the report – which the AP got from a diplomat in Geneva, Switzerland – worked together with Chinese scientists during their trip. The WHO team said it got unfettered access to key places in Wuhan over four weeks, including hospitals, laboratories, and the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where officials reported the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases in December 2019.

The group’s conclusion, though far from certain, is that wildlife farms in southern China are the most likely place where the virus made a cross-species hop into humans.

“They take exotic animals, like civets, porcupines, pangolins, raccoon dogs, and bamboo rats, and they breed them in captivity,” Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and member of the WHO team, told NPR. He added that China shut down those wildlife farms in February 2020.

The coronavirus probably came into our population via one of those bred animals, perhaps a pangolin, rabbit, or ferret, according to the WHO. Daszak said his team found evidence that these wildlife farms supplied vendors at the Huanan market.

The virus likely came from bats, and it didn’t leak from a lab

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A greater horseshoe bat, a relative of the Rhinolophis sinicus bat species that was the original host of the SARS virus.

Although the WHO report does not pinpoint exactly where the coronavirus outbreak began, it does offer reasons why it almost certainly did not leak from a lab, as some unsubstantiated theories suggest.

Ideas about a lab leak often point to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where some scientists were studying various coronaviruses prior to the pandemic. The lab is about 8 miles from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

But the WHO team found no evidence that samples of the new coronavirus existed at the institute, or at any other labs in China, before the pandemic began. The team also spoke with managers and staff at the institute about their safety protocols.

According to Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO scientist specializing in animal disease, it is “very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place.”

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The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.

Much more likely, the WHO experts said, is that the virus started circulating in bats first.

A study from February 2020 found that the new coronavirus shares 96% of its genetic code with a coronavirus seen in Chinese bat populations. Then another study revealed an even closer match: a 97.1% similarity to a coronavirus called RmYN02, which was found in bats in China’s Yunnan province between May and October 2019.

Bats are common virus hosts – cross-species hops from bat populations also led to the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and the Nipah virus.

‘Real concerns about the methodology’

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Residents wear masks in Wuhan, February 9, 2021.

Doubts about the trustworthiness of the WHO report linger, however. The AP revealed in December that the Chinese government was strictly controlling all research into the virus’ origins, while simultaneously promoting theories that it came from outside of China. Mounting evidence also suggests that the virus was circulating in China months before the first cases were reported.

“We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Thursday. During his confirmation hearing in January, Blinken said he thought China had misled the world about the coronavirus.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he’s reserving judgment about the WHO findings until he can “get a feel for what they had or did not have access to.”

“Once I get that information, I’ll be able to more adequately answer whether I trust it or not,” Fauci said of the report in a White House press briefing on Monday.

The lingering uncertainty leaves a door open for unsubstantiated theories to continue to spread. Robert Redfield, who was head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Donald Trump, recently reiterated one such idea: that the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab.

“Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out,” Redfield told CNN on Friday, adding, “I’m allowed to have opinions now.”

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I’m a doctor who was on the WHO’s COVID-19 mission to China. Here’s what we learned about the virus’ origins.

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The shuttered Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, January 21, 2020.

As I write, I am in hotel quarantine in Sydney, after returning from Wuhan, China. There, I was the Australian representative on the international World Health Organization’s (WHO) investigation into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Much has been said of the politics surrounding the mission to investigate the viral origins of COVID-19. So it’s easy to forget that behind these investigations are real people.

As part of the mission, we met the man who, on December 8, 2019, was the first confirmed COVID-19 case; he’s since recovered. We met the husband of a doctor who died of COVID-19 and left behind a young child. We met the doctors who worked in the Wuhan hospitals treating those early COVID-19 cases, and learned what happened to them and their colleagues. We witnessed the impact of COVID-19 on many individuals and communities, affected so early in the pandemic, when we didn’t know much about the virus, how it spreads, how to treat COVID-19, or its impacts.

We talked to our Chinese counterparts – scientists, epidemiologists, doctors – over the four weeks the WHO mission was in China. We were in meetings with them for up to 15 hours a day, so we became colleagues, even friends. This allowed us to build respect and trust in a way you couldn’t necessarily do via Zoom or email.

This is what we learned about the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

The virus was most likely of animal origin

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A cyclist rides in front of the closed Huanan market in Wuhan, China on February 9, 2021.

It was in Wuhan, in central China, that the virus, now called SARS-CoV-2, emerged in December 2019, unleashing the greatest infectious disease outbreak since the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.

Our investigations concluded the virus was most likely of animal origin. It probably crossed over to humans from bats, via an as-yet-unknown intermediary animal, at an unknown location. Such “zoonotic” diseases have triggered pandemics before. But we are still working to confirm the exact chain of events that led to the current pandemic. Sampling of bats in Hubei province and wildlife across China has revealed no SARS-CoV-2 to date.

We visited the now-closed Wuhan wet market which, in the early days of the pandemic, was blamed as the source of the virus. Some stalls at the market sold “domesticated” wildlife products. These are animals raised for food, such as bamboo rats, civets, and ferret badgers. There is also evidence some domesticated wildlife may be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. However, none of the animal products sampled after the market’s closure tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

We also know not all of those first 174 early COVID-19 cases visited the market, including the man who was diagnosed in December 2019 with the earliest onset date.

However, when we visited the closed market, it’s easy to see how an infection might have spread there. When it was open, there would have been around 10,000 people visiting a day, in close proximity, with poor ventilation and drainage.

There’s also genetic evidence generated during the mission for a transmission cluster there. Viral sequences from several of the market cases were identical, suggesting a transmission cluster. However, there was some diversity in other viral sequences, implying other unknown or unsampled chains of transmission.

A summary of modelling studies of the time to the most recent common ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 sequences estimated the start of the pandemic between mid-November and early December. There are also publications suggesting SARS-CoV-2 circulation in various countries earlier than the first case in Wuhan, although these require confirmation.

The market in Wuhan, in the end, was more of an amplifying event rather than necessarily a true ground zero. So we need to look elsewhere for the viral origins.

Did frozen or refrigerated food play a role?

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A woman looks at frozen food in a supermarket in Beijing, China, August 13, 2020.

Then there was the “cold chain” hypothesis. This is the idea the virus might have originated from elsewhere via the farming, catching, processing, transporting, refrigeration, or freezing of food. Was that food ice cream, fish, wildlife meat? We don’t know. It’s unproven that this triggered the origin of the virus itself. But to what extent did it contribute to its spread? Again, we don’t know.

Several “cold chain” products present in the Wuhan market were not tested for the virus. Environmental sampling in the market showed viral surface contamination. This may indicate the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 through infected people, or contaminated animal products and “cold chain” products. Investigation of “cold chain” products and virus survival at low temperatures is still underway.

It’s extremely unlikely that the virus escaped from a lab

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The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.

The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely.

We visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is an impressive research facility, and looks to be run well, with due regard to staff health.

We spoke to the scientists there. We heard that scientists’ blood samples, which are routinely taken and stored, were tested for signs they had been infected. No evidence of antibodies to the coronavirus was found. We looked at their biosecurity audits. No evidence.

We looked at the closest virus to SARS-CoV-2 they were working on – the virus RaTG13 – which had been detected in caves in southern China where some miners had died seven years previously.

But all the scientists had was a genetic sequence for this virus. They hadn’t managed to grow it in culture. While viruses certainly do escape from laboratories, this is rare. So, we concluded it was extremely unlikely this had happened in Wuhan.

A team of more than 30 experts 

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Members of the World Health Organization’s team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic at a press conference in Wuhan, China, on February 9, 2021.

When I say “we,” the mission was a joint exercise between the WHO and the Chinese health commission. In all, there were 17 Chinese and 10 international experts, plus seven other experts and support staff from various agencies. We looked at the clinical epidemiology (how COVID-19 spread among people), the molecular epidemiology (the genetic makeup of the virus and its spread), and the role of animals and the environment.

The clinical epidemiology group alone looked at China’s records of 76,000 episodes from more than 200 institutions of anything that could have resembled COVID-19 – such as influenza-like illnesses, pneumonia, and other respiratory illnesses. They found no clear evidence of substantial circulation of COVID-19 in Wuhan during the latter part of 2019 before the first case.

What’s next?

Our mission to China was only phase one. We are due to publish our official report in the coming weeks. Investigators will also look further afield for data, to investigate evidence the virus was circulating in Europe, for instance, earlier in 2019. Investigators will continue to test wildlife and other animals in the region for signs of the virus. And we’ll continue to learn from our experiences to improve how we investigate the next pandemic.

Irrespective of the origins of the virus, individual people with the disease are at the beginning of the epidemiology data points, sequences, and numbers. The long-term physical and psychological effects – the tragedy and anxiety – will be felt in Wuhan, and elsewhere, for decades to come.

The Conversation
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WHO and Chinese scientists concluded it’s ‘extremely unlikely’ the coronavirus leaked from a lab, after a 4-week investigation

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A cyclist rides in front of the closed Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China on February 9, 2021.

A year into the pandemic, the origins of the coronavirus are still a mystery. 

The World Health Organization sent an international team to Wuhan, China in January to investigate where the virus came from and how it was introduced into the human population. Yet the investigation yielded few definitive answers.

The experts were able to take one hypothesis off the table, however: the idea that the novel coronavirus may have accidentally leaked from a Wuhan lab. This unsubstantiated theory was pushed by some members of the Trump administration in the spring. But Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO’s food safety and animal disease specialist, said in a Tuesday press conference that a lab leak is “extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population.”

The WHO team will not be revisiting that hypothesis in future studies, he said, adding that the virus most likely jumped from an animal host into people – just like Ebola and SARS did.

‘It was very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place’

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Members of the World Health Organization’s team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic attend a press conference in Wuhan, China, on February 9, 2021.

Working together with Chinese scientists, the WHO experts had unfettered access to key places in Wuhan over four weeks, including hospitals, laboratories, and the Huanan Seafood Market, which was linked to the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases. 

Those who’d suggested the possibility of a lab leak mostly pointed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, since some scientists there study coronaviruses. It’s one of the highest-level biosafety labs in the world. There’s no evidence, however, that any coronavirus sample collected for study in that lab was accidentally released.

The WHO team spoke with managers and staff at the institute and other labs in the area about their safety protocols.

“Accidents do happen,” Ben Embarek said. “We have many examples in many countries in the world of past accidents.” But he added that such accidents are rare and the Wuhan institute houses a “state of the art lab and it is very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place.”

Jonna Mazet, a US epidemiologist who has worked with and trained researchers at the institute, also previously told Insider that “it’s highly unlikely this was a lab accident,” 

Mazet said she helped the staff develop and implement a “very stringent safety protocol.”

wuhan institute of virology
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.

In fact, the WHO team found no evidence that samples of the novel coronavirus existed in any Wuhan labs, or any other labs in the world, before the pandemic. 

Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the Wuhan institute, told Scientific American in April that she personally checked and found that none of the coronavirus samples stored at the institute matched the novel coronavirus’ genome.

“That really took a load off my mind,” Shi said. “I had not slept a wink for days.”

The virus likely jumped from bats to an intermediary host, then to people

Most experts agree that the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, jumped from an animal host to humans in what’s known as a spillover event.

Bats are common virus hosts: Cross-species hops from bats also led to outbreaks of Ebola and SARS. So labs around the world have analyzed genetic samples of bat coronaviruses that were circulating prior to the pandemic. One study found in February that the new coronavirus shares 96% of its genetic code with a coronavirus seen in Chinese bat populations. Then a May study revealed a closer match: A 97.1% similarity to a coronavirus called RmYN02, which was found in bats in China’s Yunnan province between May and October 2019.

horseshoe bat
A greater horseshoe bat, a relative of the bat species that was the original host of the SARS virus.

According to the WHO team, it’s unlikely the virus hopped directly from bats to people, though.

“Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host species is the most likely pathway and one that will require more studies and more specific targeted research,” Ben Embarek said. 

Animals that might have served as that intermediary host include pangolins, ferrets, minks, snakes, or turtles. 

Marion Koopmans, a WHO virologist, said in the press conference the team found that rabbits and ferret-badgers sold at the Huanan Seafood Market came from regions in China where bats and other animals harbor viruses similar to the new coronavirus. Both of those species are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, so have been intermediary hosts. 

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Residents wear masks while walking in Wuhan, China, February 9, 2021.

But the WHO experts couldn’t confirm how the new coronavirus arrived at the Huanan market. It’s possible that an infected person passed the virus to others at the market, or “it could also be through the introduction of a product,” Ben Embarek said.

“A frozen wild animal that was infected could be a potential vehicle of the virus into market environments,” he added.

Still, the cases linked to the Huanan market were not the first in China.

The virus wasn’t engineered in a lab, either

A conspiracy theory similar to the lab-leak idea is that the new coronavirus was engineered in a Wuhan laboratory. A group of Chinese virologists with ties to former Trump strategist Steve Bannon suggested in September that Chinese scientists engineered the virus using existing bat coronaviruses as a “backbone” or “template.”

One of those virologists, Li-Meng Yan, told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the virus was “man-made” and “intentionally” released by the Chinese government.

But that theory “has already been refuted by the scientific community around the world,” Liang Wannian, a member of China’s National Health Commission who assisted with the WHO investigation, said at the press conference.

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A worker in protective gear directs members of the WHO investigation team upon their arrival at the airport in Wuhan, January 14, 2021.

A March study published in the journal Nature concluded based on genetic analysis that the new coronavirus wasn’t a hodgepodge of existing coronaviruses. The authors found it could not be a “laboratory construct” or “purposefully manipulated virus.”

“The genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone,” they said.

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