NEW DELHI: A year and a half since Covid-19 surfaced in China’s Wuhan, the origin of the pathogen (Sars-Cov-2) that has spread worldwide remains a mystery. As the lab-leak theory (that the virus leaked from Wuhan Institute of Virology) makes a comeback, there have been renewed calls for a probe into how the virus originated. To find answers to some of the questions floating around, StratNews Global caught up with Dr Tun-hou Lee, Professor of Virology (Emeritus) at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston, USA.
What are the various views regarding the origin of the virus?
Simply put, there are two views, two major views. One is that this virus was transmitted from a natural host directly or indirectly to humans. Theory No. 2 is that the virus leaked from a laboratory and the laboratory people focus on is the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China.
The view that the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan was initially dismissed as a conspiracy theory but it has gained traction of late. What has changed?
I think there are two possibilities, complementary possibilities. One is the dislike or the hatred towards former President Donald Trump. The conspiracy theory is pretty much against Trump. Basically, what President Trump said was regarded as non-credible and non-scientific. I am using this as a broad stroke. It has a political element in there and it’s more a political element than a scientific element. On top of that, there are scientists who subscribe to the view that there is no evidence of the virus leak. I think near the end of the last administration, there was more intelligence data that was revealed. It must be due to some reason that the U.S. was reluctant to reveal all the information and my speculation is that they don’t want to compromise the source of the information. More information has come out lately and I think the Biden administration was probably fed up with China’s resistance to reveal more, to be more cooperative but what’s even worse is that China accuses the United States of being the actor who created that virus. I suspect those are the reasons that President Biden said let’s examine the intelligence reports more closely and he gave 90 days time to do that. I don’t suspect the U.S. has the capacity to suck up information globally. So it is a matter of sorting through that information, whether human based or by other means of intelligence gathering. One of the commonly cited information was that three WIV laboratory personnel got sick in November (2019) and they were hospitalised for having Covid-like symptoms. I think this change was in part due to China’s lack of desire or lack of transparency to share information to solve this problem.
How credible is the WHO fact-finding team’s report that the lab theory is extremely unlikely, given that no raw data was shared with them and they got the data that was aggregated by their Chinese hosts?
The WHO fact-finding team was clearly limited in terms of what they could see, who they could talk to and what data was relevant to them. So under those circumstances, it would be very difficult for anybody to come to a very definitive conclusion. So at most they can say (one theory about the origin of the virus) is very likely but they cannot rule out other possibilities, particularly the one linked to laboratory accident or deliberate effort to make this virus which I don’t believe was the case. But the fact is that they don’t have all the data, so the fact finding report, the validity of that report obviously has its limitations.
China has been selective in sharing information, doesn’t it raise questions?
It certainly does. When you are dealing with a CCP type of government or that type of political system, you see problems that spill over to the public health arena. A very simple example is Li Wenliang, the doctor who was a whistleblower and he was only blowing the whistle among his medical school classmates, warning them to be careful and he was sanctioned, he was penalised and intimidated. When something of this nature is handled this way, it tells you that the system has problems. Dr Li passed away and he was hailed as a hero, perhaps because of popular dissent. What happened to other whistleblowers? They disappeared; they were actually detained—nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be heard. I don’t believe that China’s central govt, centre for disease control, technocrats and scientific people, are interested in hiding the data. But those in Wuhan have no idea how the upper-level people (higher-ups) will react. This is not the way you deal with disease surveillance. The information never went up to the central government or when it got, it was quite late. So all this tells you is that there is a problem with the system. And even today the govt position is we did nothing wrong, so go and check your own house. They are really not interested in finding out the source. The epidemic started in Wuhan, that’s crystal clear. This is pretty much a repeat of the original SARS story in 2002-2003, except that virus was not as contagious as this one. That was limited to a geographic area and didn’t spread much. This time, it’s a very different virus. China really needs to reform its political system. You have this very top down (approach) with a lot of people thinking about the people upstairs. This is a very unhealthy system for control of infectious diseases at the very minimum.
Now there are calls for a transparent probe; given that so much time has passed, wouldn’t the trail of any possible mischief have gone cold?
That depends on what information will be helpful in finding the origin of this virus. Let me say that I am a subscriber of the theory that this is a laboratory accident. Despite a lot of criticism about the gain of function study, I think the gain of function study (manipulating viruses to increase their infectiousness in order to study their potential effects on humans) can be a legitimate study, legitimate scientific inquiry. We need to know what determinants helped a virus jump from one species to another one and then to humans. Knowing that will help disease prevention, vaccines, treatment, etc. So there can be a legitimate investigation but to conduct that study, you need to do it in an environment, in a setting, in a political system where transparency and following the rule of law are encouraged, so safety rules are required. It’s not easy to work with this type of Coronavirus. Just imagine having to wear those suits in a biosafety Level 4 laboratory. A lot of people will try to skirt the rules. I believe that it was sloppy work and did not follow safety rules. There’s a record that Wuhan Institute of Virology had issues following biosafety rules.
So if China could tell what were the experiments done, what reagents were used, who fell sick during that time and what their medical records were, we can easily know more. I don’t believe China deliberately created this virus as a bio-weapon. Contamination in a virology laboratory happens all the time, everywhere. Mistakes can happen but if that affects such a huge population, there’s all the more need to find the origin to prevent an outbreak from happening again. Now, to point a finger at other people reflects very badly on the Chinese government. And I hope the government stops accusing other people of creating this virus without thoroughly providing information to the whole world to either prove nothing happened there or to help understand how it happened.