The past few months have revived the debate over origins Corona virus SARS-CoV-2, the cause of infection. Since it was first identified in a market in Wuhan in early 2021, many theories have spread on the Internet, sometimes politically rather than scientifically motivated.
In the one and a half years of searching for the origin of the virus many answers were found, but this left many questions. This debate has caused a stir in the community and the spirits of the scientific community who want to know who the heroes and villains of history are. The answer is not always easy.
A lot was already known a year ago. This virus appears to be similar to other types found in nature, and it was not designed in a laboratory.
All the peculiarities of the virus that are highly effective in attacking human cells have been identified in other types.
In short, there is no strong evidence to suggest that SARS-CoV-2 did not originate in wild animals in all previous infections.
Many of these results were published by the most important center for corona virus research: the Wuhan Institute of Virology, located a few kilometers away from the center of the epidemic.
However, one year has passed and SARS-CoV-2 has not yet been detected in wild animals. Meanwhile, many scientists are beginning to think that it is time to consider hypotheses that were considered impossible until recently.
Did the virus escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology? The response to conducting virus research could have far-reaching consequences.
Wuhan Institute of Virology
The existence of the laboratory at Wuhan is beyond doubt. The laboratory was built in the region where the SARS-causing corona virus has already appeared, with the aim of studying the different types of corona viruses present in wild animals to monitor the evolution of new strains.
In any infection, it is common to find nearby laboratories to study the virus in question. In addition, it is common for it to take many years to find a wild animal that carries the disease.
In fact, the Wuhan company was responsible for great advances in this field, mainly due to the famous “bad girl” Shi Zhengli in China.
Shi Zhengli’s work involved collecting bat fecal samples from caves in order to identify new types of corona viruses. Much attention has been paid to this type of research since the first SARS epidemic in 2002. Therefore, researchers may have brought SARS-CoV-2 into the laboratory, or contracted it during sample collection.
According to Xi, his entire laboratory inventory was fully analyzed as soon as the virus became known, and SARS-CoV-2 was not detected.
In fact, it is difficult to obtain complete virus particles from samples, which often contain only virus fragments that do not present a risk of contamination. Research on such viruses often requires animal cell cultures that can become infectious to keep the virus “alive”.
If the researchers actually allowed the cave bat virus to enter the lab and escape, it would mean a very serious security breach that could tarnish the reputation of Chinese companies.
However, despite the company’s role in initiating the epidemic, the origin of the virus remains natural. Even without the contribution of the company, the virus will continue in nature like an explosive time bomb.
But the company still has a potential potential role to play in initiating the epidemic: the so-called operational gain tests, which have been the subject of much debate over the past decade.
Controversial gain-performance tests
In 2012, a team of scientists from Europe set out to study the potential for dangerous bird flu to infect humans. For this they use the virus to repeatedly infect a group of ferrets, animals with immunity similar to ours.
At the end of the experiment, the scientists concluded that the virus had actually developed the ability to infect human cells, which was the most important result in trying to prevent the next infection. But these scientists now had a new virus that “got a new function” that is now capable of starting an epidemic.
But how to anticipate the emergence of new strains with the potential to affect humans?
Many respected scientists argue that there is only one way: to develop the ability of these viruses to infect human cells to reproduce in laboratories.
In theory, these tests would be one step ahead of viruses, and we could already be ready for when these infections would finally occur.
But is it really a good idea to conduct tests that increase the risk of developing more dangerous viruses than already exist? Most of the scientific community does not accept this.
Realizing the dangers of employment trials, the Obama administration imposed a ban on their realization. Already under the Trump administration, the ban has been lifted, and trials have resumed in a few places, such as Calveston in Texas and Chapel Hill in North Carolina. Similarly, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) has returned to fund similar research, including projects at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In one such project, Shi Zhengli, released in 2017, wanted to see if corona viruses derived from bad specimens could develop the ability to infect human cells, which usually does not happen directly.
Corona viruses do not have a high mutation rate, but they often recombine with other variants and acquire new characteristics (so it is not surprising that SARS-CoV-2 has unique variant properties).
Shi then performed experiments in which several strains derived from bats’ tails were reconnected, which they used to enter SARS-CoV-2 human cells until they developed a variant of the ACE2 receptor.
The variant developed in this experiment is highly documented, not exactly SARS-CoV-2. In fact the program even demonstrates the mechanism by which a virus can develop in nature. However, the fact that the Wuhan Institute of Virology conducted profitable tests of the process goes behind an ear about the content of other projects that have not yet been published.
Discussion in the scientific community
Some in the scientific community believe that functional gain tests are necessary to predict and prevent future infections. The group, led by Peter Dassack, who had invested heavily in the situation, wrote a letter last year that ruled out the possibility of a laboratory accident.
Suspicions were then caught, and the NIH, on the orders of the White House, cut funding for job-seeking surveys conducted in Wuhan.
Most recently, another letter, led by Jesse Bloom and David Relman, called for further investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, reflecting the position of the majority in the scientific community.
Although the natural origin of the virus is still highly regarded, the hypothesis of a laboratory accident needs to be seriously considered.
Meanwhile, precious time is being wasted by politicizing the issue.
The Chinese government, overwhelmed by the harsh climate of the West, has increasingly surrounded Wuhan.
The WHO mission, which was accused of confirming the origin of the virus, returned without a thorough analysis, and was even criticized by the WHO president.
Shi Zhengli is one of the most qualified people and the only one who can give definitive answers, is isolated, frustrated and unable to give interviews.
Until recently, Wuhan’s research was done openly, with international cooperation and international funding.
Understanding what happened not only avoids future infections, but also the need to reconsider the limits of research on dangerous viruses, establishes where the scientist stops being a hero and becomes a villain.