03 June 2021
All Too Human?
Covid-19’s mysterious origins.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Last week at Zhanggongshan Zoo near the city of Bengbu, China, a keeper forgot to lock the pen in which he’d isolated a tiger while cleaning its enclosure. The tiger attacked and killed him. The keeper had twenty year’s experience in his job, but that one moment of carelessness – a simple human error – released a dangerous killer, with tragic consequences.
Earlier this month, puzzled and frightened residents of Hangzhou, one of China’s biggest cities, spotted three leopards on the loose and alerted the authorities. Two of the leopards were recovered, but the search continues for the third. The big cats had escaped from the nearby Hangzhou Safari Park; they’d been at large for at least a week but the staff there had failed to raise the alarm. Following those first sightings, they even denied that the cats were theirs. Their fears for themselves (fear of what, exactly – punishment, humiliation, embarrassment, loss of face, loss of revenue?) proved more powerful than their sense of responsibility and thus compounded the dangers they’d unleashed on the citizens of Hangzhou.
This week, the possibility that the Covid-19 epidemic was also caused by simple human error, and exacerbated by a failure to raise the alarm promptly and by a refusal to accept responsibility, is once again under investigation.
The WHO’s recent report concluded that there was no evidence that the virus originated in and escaped from the virology institute in Wuhan, and the scientific consensus is that there is no genetic evidence that the virus is anything other than zoonotic (i.e. naturally occurring, from an animal reservoir – likely to have originated in bats and transmitted to humans through another species, such as pangolins, in Wuhan’s wet markets). But critics have dismissed the WHO report as a whitewash (the authorities in Wuhan restricted access to the institute) and the scientific consensus is not without dissenting voices. So suspicions remain about the coincidence of Wuhan as both the location of Covid-19’s first recorded outbreak and the location of the institute where bat-derived coronaviruses were being studied (there’s a logic in having such an institute in an area where such viruses are rife, but science writer Nicholas Wade has pointed out that the cave-home of the infected bats is nearly 1000 miles away from Wuhan).
Those suspicions intensified last week when US intelligence reported that three members of staff from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalised with flu-like symptoms in November 2019, weeks before the first reports of the virus. This information (rubbished by Beijing as “completely untrue”) came hot on the heels of reminders from members of the US House Intelligence Committee that US diplomats in China had claimed four years ago that the Wuhan lab was engaged in “dangerous research” and that China has a “history of research lab leaks resulting in infection”.
The report has prompted the US and UK governments to call for a thorough investigation of “all possible theories on how Covid-19 made that jump from animals to humans and how it spread”, including the theory that it may have escaped from a Chinese laboratory. President Biden admitted that there’s no consensus among US intelligence agencies about the source of the epidemic, because of a paucity of evidence and information, but urged them to do all they could to find out more over the next 90 days.
The idea that the virus is naturally occurring doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have escaped from a lab, if the naturally-occurring viruses studied there included the Covid-19 virus. But last week also saw the publication of a report by a leading researcher at the institute, Shi Zhengli, the ‘bat woman’ of Wuhan, which appears to state that they didn’t, that none of the coronavirus strains gathered from bats in mines and caves in recent years for study at Wuhan matched the Covid-19 virus; state media followed through by asking how could Covid-19 have escaped from the lab if it hadn’t gone in there in the first place?
But of course there are two questions here. Not just “Did Covid-19 escape from the institute?” – but also “Was Covid-19 created in the institute?” And some dissenting but expert voices do indeed claim that the virus is in fact not zoonotic but engineered from other coronaviruses. Even Anthony Fauci, the US government’s leading specialist, admitted that he’s no longer 100% confident that Covid-19 developed naturally.
Professor Angus Dalgleish, an oncologist and vaccine researcher at St George’s Hospital in London, claims that Covid-19 is indeed an artificially adapted coronavirus. “The changes required to infect humans are extremely unlikely to have occurred naturally” he says. He claims that the virus’s spike proteins contain artificially inserted sequences which make it “ideally adapted for infecting bats” – very useful if you’re a scientist investigating coronavirus and bats, but with the unfortunate side effect that it makes it capable of infecting human beings as well. He also believes that it leaked from a lab because of poor biosecurity. He’s a great believer “in the universal law of human incompetence”.
Nicholas Wade, a science reporter who has written for the New York Times, has criticised hygiene security at the Wuhan lab. “Virologists don’t like to work in these very high-security labs. It’s all very cumbersome” he told Gerard Baker of The Times. “So they allow these experiments with coronaviruses to go on in this very low-level security arrangement.” He too suspects that Covid-19 is probably a coronavirus which has been adapted by scientists, presumably to facilitate virus studies in the lab; he points out that the virus, unlike others such as Sars and Mers, doesn’t seem to have gone through the mutations usually associated with the passage from animals to humans but has suddenly appeared fully equipped to infect human beings.
Beijing has responded to such accusations with denial and counter-accusations. It’s difficult to disprove these claims, of course; “China can rightly say it is frustrating, being asked to prove a negative” said The Times’ science correspondent Tom Whipple. “But, its critics counter, it has not shown itself very motivated to try.” The same newspaper points out that “the Wuhan laboratory has yet to publicly share any of its research logs, safety records or details of its work with bats and coronaviruses”.
All this has to be considered in the context of political rivalry between the US and China, and obstructionism doesn’t necessarily mean a cover-up (Saddam Hussein didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction, after all). But Beijing’s resistance to investigation and its apparent reluctance to co-operate are puzzling and worrying. As Boris Johnson said this week, the investigation that he and Biden are demanding “needs to explore all possible theories on how Covid-19 made that jump from animals to humans and how it spread” because it’s “vital to ensure we learn lessons from this crisis and prevent another global pandemic”.