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Why the theory of leaks in the Chinese laboratory matters

Did the global pandemic penetrate from a truck packed with animal cages on its way to market? A cave where villagers dig bat guano? Improperly labeled vial in a Chinese coronavirus laboratory?

These theories have become a game of guilt and a geopolitical battlefield. But for scientists, finding the original source of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is key to understanding how to predict, prevent, and contain future pandemics that may occur, whether from a leak. from the growing number of pathogenic laboratories or the accelerating human encroachment on the natural world.

Identifying the origin of the virus is crucial for a rapid response that can save lives and protect economies ̵

1; especially in the early days of the outbreak. Evidence of natural distribution will stimulate efforts to limit human interaction with wildlife and create a stronger surveillance system. Laboratory origin would strengthen the requirements for strict international standards for the types of tests and the conditions under which they must be performed.

“It’s not a question of who’s to blame – it’s whether you want another virus to kill millions more in the next decade,” said Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who called for a more in-depth investigation. the pandemic. “When your house catches fire, it shouldn’t be contradictory to take a closer look at how it happened.”

Two masked men handle seafood that fills the trays on the table.  Two others are examining the goods.

Residents of Macau, China, buy seafood on the wet market on January 28, 2020.

(Anthony Quan / Getty Images)

As we bulldoze the rainforest, warm the climate, and consume exotic species, we run the risk of breaking a thread in a web that is too thin, unleashing Disease X, and watching it move nimbly through its new hosts and enter us. This happened with Ebola, SARS and MERS. And this will happen again.

As destructive and deadly as they were, these outbreaks have failed to drastically change the way we recognize and combat emerging dangers. If human-to-human transmission turns out to be the cause of the coronavirus infection, which killed 3.5 million worldwide and robbed the US economy of about $ 16 trillion, environmentalists could finally get financial and strategic support for mapping. on the planet viral landscape, provide hotspots and train teams to identify early groups of diseases.

A searchlight in a dark cave shows a man in protective clothing holding the wings of a bat in a net.

A researcher removes a bat from a cave net in Sai Yok National Park in the province of Kanchanaburi in Thailand.

(Sakchai Lalit / Associated Press)

The association of early cases of SARS with palm civets led to repression of restaurants serving the delicacy; understanding the transmission of MERS stimulates efforts to develop vaccine for camels. There is a threat of bird flu for humans changed poultry practices around the world. Similarly, if SARS-CoV-2 spreads from a wet market or animal, as most scientists suggest, it would affect future strategy.

So far, however, there is no clear sign of an intermediate host. Of the 80,000 animal samples tested in China, none contain the genetic material of the virus or antibodies to it.

But evidence of an accidental laboratory leak would have very different consequences, especially for the nearly 60 BSL-4 laboratories that are planned or operating in 23 different countries. BSL-4 – or Biosafety Level 4 – Laboratories have the highest level of bioretention because researchers work with dangerous or easily transmitted pathogens.
Only about a quarter of countries operating or planning to operate such laboratories perform well in terms of biosafety preparedness. criteriaand more than three-quarters of the laboratories are in crowded urban conditions, which increases the likelihood of accidental leaks.

There are no international oversight or enforceable safety standards governing BSL-4 laboratories. Even the strictest biosafety guidelines focus on what happens in laboratory walls, not on the protocol for field missions to collect samples from hazardous areas, including bat caves, where researchers can infect a virus and unknowingly infect it. carried back to the lab or home.

This scenario suggests that theories that SARS-CoV-2 originates from an interface with nature or from a laboratory leak are not mutually exclusive.

Close-up bat with small, sharp teeth and a long swab in the mouth.

A researcher smears the mouth of a bat in Sai Yok National Park in the province of Kanchanaburi in Thailand.

(Sakchai Lalit / Associated Press)

The Wuhan Institute of Virology at the center of the debate is home to some of the world’s leading virologists, considered leaders in pandemic prevention. But in 2018, the US State Department expressed concern about safety at the institute. A year later, the lab workers were hospitalized with symptoms similar to COVID-19. The laboratory leak hypothesis does not imply sinister intentions or even incompetence, but emphasizes that incidents among staff they really happen.

Even some scientists who support the theory of natural origin argue for a more complete investigation because they believe it will set a precedent for better study of dozens of other laboratories in the United States, Russia and elsewhere. Terminating the query would send a dangerous signal: Reporting is not guaranteed.

Four men in uniforms and masks stand on the roadway in front of a sign building

Security personnel gather near the entrance to the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the World Health Organization team on February 3, 2021.

(From Han Guan / Associated Press)

Among those pushing for further investigation is Ralph Baric, a coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina who has worked with the institute in the past to create an artificial coronavirus that infects human cells. If it proves that a virus – even unchanged – has escaped the lab, it could lead critics to argue that the risks of the experiments outweigh the benefits.

The path to the origin of the virus is overshadowed by geopolitics stemming from China’s reluctance to be transparent. The historical record has been compromised from the very beginning. For 18 months, the Chinese government has silenced critics within its borders, hiding vital scientific evidence and using vaccine diplomacy in an attempt to control the story. But Beijing’s version of events could be further challenged after President Biden recently ordered US intelligence agencies to investigate the outbreak.

The World Health Organization’s reputation is also on the line, following an investigation in which its team, half of them Chinese delegates, spent just three hours on a one-month mission in the lab. Only four pages of the 313-page WHO report speaks of the possibility of a laboratory leak, ranking such a scenario on the assumption that the pandemic began with frozen foods.

A group of people with suitcases stand in front of two people in protective equipment from head to toe.

A security guard guided members of the WHO investigation team on arrival at Wuhan Airport in the central Chinese province of Hubei on January 14.

(From Han Guan / Associated Press)

The United States is also not immune to the effects of the findings. U.S. nonprofits, such as the EcoHealth Alliance, have provided taxpayer-funded subsidies to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for coronavirus research and U.S.-based microbiologists have long collaborated with them. If the global pandemic is eventually traced to the institute, the United States can share the blame.

Pandemics are rare. To prevent the next one, epidemiologists will have only about half a dozen historical data to work with. Understanding the SARS-CoV-2 pathway is crucial for prioritizing prevention measures in the future.

Initially, the laboratory leak hypothesis involved a combination of other theories, including a biological weapon leak or even a deliberate pandemic. Former President Trump’s comments on it – combined with a surge of anti-Asian racism – have diverted the debate from science to speculation and politics.

But to date, publicly available data do not reveal the genesis of the virus.

Worryingly, SARS-CoV-2 – with its low mortality compared to other deadly viruses and the tendency to spare young children – was not the worst case scenario. The next pandemic may be different and the potential culprit is there – in a rainforest ecosystem, a trading market or a laboratory freezer. Vital months have been lost since the outbreak of the coronavirus, and we may never know all the details. But public health clearly shows that we need to want to know.

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