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A Berkeley scientist needs an answer

During most of the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts widely speculated that the new coronavirus, which killed at least 3.7 million people worldwide, was transmitted from an infected animal to humans, whether in the wild. or the wildlife market.

They are now reviewing whether the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, may have leaked instead of a laboratory where researchers studied such viruses, and potentially alter them in ways that could make it more contagious. China and many leading US health experts have long ruled out the possibility – which was pushed early by then-President Donald Trump – but there are some changes among some researchers. Just last week, the White House called for an independent investigation.

Rasmus Nielsen, Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. (UC Berkeley)

Rasmus Nielsen, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Berkeley, was among 18 researchers from reputable universities around the world who, in a May 14 article in Science, called on the scientific community to study the theory of laboratory leakage. We asked him why this was suddenly gaining interest. His answers, which have been edited for length and clarity, reflect his personal opinions.

IN: A year ago, everyone said the virus must have come from the wild, perhaps through a Chinese “wet market” selling fresh produce, seafood and meat near where the first cases occurred. What has changed since then?

A: In a sense, not much has changed. I don’t think you will find many people who say that it is impossible that it came from a laboratory. It was always on the radar screen. We don’t really know.

IN: After former President Donald Trump said in April 2020 that he believed the virus had leaked from a Chinese laboratory, why do so many scientists say otherwise?

A: When Trump came out and said he was coming from a lab and there was no publicly available evidence to politicize him. It has become much harder for scientists to go out and talk about it.

IN: After the World Health Organization’s research team issued a report in March that said a laboratory leak was unlikely, but did not rule it out, why weren’t the scientists happy?

A: The WHO report does not include an investigation into the laboratory leak hypothesis – it is not part of the mandate and the report rejects this hypothesis without any real data. Also, he did not do many of the standard analyzes you would do to find the source of a new epidemic, including detailed tracking of the contacts of the first infected individuals.

IN: Has anything new been learned this year that increases the chance of a laboratory accident?

A: We know much more about what is happening at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. They grew viruses on human cells, adding elements from another virus, training viruses on human cells to see which ones were the most contagious. When you do this, you run the risk of making viruses more contagious.

Question:: Is there evidence that the COVID-19 virus was manipulated in a laboratory and not just a naturally evolved pathogen?

A: There is no scientific evidence in one way or another. There is nothing in the DNA sequence that smokes a gun. The sequence of SARS-CoV-2 is in line with evolution in the natural world.

IN: How about conflicting reports from Wuhan’s lab manipulating coronaviruses with “gain function” methods, essentially deliberately making viruses more virulent, which they deny?

A: In a sense, this is a matter of semantics. There is technically no evidence for studies of the gain from function, but there is evidence for genetic manipulation of coronaviruses in laboratories. They publish articles that show that they work on chimeric (artificial) viruses.

The creation of a chimeric virus may not be an experiment in acquiring function. You don’t have to deliberately insert something into a virus that you know will make it more effective or contagious. You can simply mimic the natural way in which natural viruses recombine with each other.

Question: Will it be difficult to understand from the genetic sequence of the virus whether it is a chimera?

A Yes exactly. Some ways of doing this would not leave clear traces in the DNA (RNA) sequence.

IN: Why does this species work?

A: The reason you do this kind of research is that you want to know what viruses are out there that can cause an epidemic. To answer this, you need to grow them on human cells. So when we do this research, it’s not just about crazy scientists doing crazy experiments. He must be prepared for the next epidemic. This happens everywhere. But this must be done under safe conditions.

Question:: Was the laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Biosafety Level 2 out of 4, safe for this job?

A: I personally think that the level of safety is too low for this type of research. This should be done in a BSL-3 or BSL-4 laboratory. The fact that it is done in BSL-2 is worrying.

IN: COVID-19 virus has not been detected in animals. Does this imply a laboratory leak?

A: We haven’t found such a thing for SARS-CoV-2, that’s right. But that in itself doesn’t prove anything. There are viruses that we still don’t know where they came from. We never knew where Ebola came from. There have been many leaks from the lab over time. SARS-1 escaped from the laboratory five times. But what has never happened before is a new lab virus leaking.

IN: Does the rate at which COVID-19 vaccines have been developed change the views on the benefits of this virus study?

A: The wonderful, fantastic thing is that we have RNA vaccines. All you need is the genome of the virus. This is also an argument that you do not need research on these viruses. You can get vaccinated really fast without doing this test first.

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